Neither Steve Evans nor Leeds United need any guidance about the main strands of Watford’s attack. Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo tore up the Championship last year and with 22 goals between them this season they are doing a good job of ruffling the Premier League.
Watford by contrast will be less familiar with the front end of Evans’ team, even with Nicola Salerno – one the men behind Massimo Cellino’s initial splurge of transfers at Leeds – in the background as a consultant at Vicarage Road. With tomorrow’s FA Cup fifth-round tie arriving too soon for an ill and injured Chris Wood to play, it will fall again to Souleymane Doukara to carry United’s threat.
Doukara, in stages, has been so anonymous at Elland Road that he did not make the squad for either of the Championship games against Watford last season, both of which Leeds lost. Given his near-certain selection at this point of the term, it is remarkable to think that Doukara was nothing more than an occasional substitute until the middle of December.
The Frenchman has not succeeded in curing United’s shortage of goals but in the past two months he has done more than anyone else to help it. Two excellent saves from Dimi Konstantopoulos – one of which the goalkeeper said he “thought he got a fingernail on” as a flicked header flew to his left – denied Doukara a winning goal in Monday’s 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough, another night when the striker’s influence was undeniable.
It remains to be seen after 18 mixed months and long periods of isolation whether Doukara is the player Cellino thought he could be when he signed from Catania in 2014, but of all the decisions that Evans will make before tomorrow’s tie, the inclusion of the 23-year-old is not one of them.
“The best thing I can say about Doukara at the moment is that I wouldn’t want him to be playing against us,” Evans said. “However, he’s played in the past, whatever else has gone one, I don’t think anyone can pretend that he isn’t causing teams problems. Aitor Karanka (Middlesbrough’s manager) said it on Monday night – in his own way he said to me ‘what have you done with him?’
“As I’ve said before, at times Doukara’s been made to feel like he’s not good enough and I’d suggest that because of that he’s ended up playing like someone who isn’t good enough. But a bit of confidence, a bit of a run in the team has turned him into a different player. I’m not saying we’re doing enough up front, because the stats show that we’re not, but he’s earned himself some deserved credit.”
Doukara is not alone in that. The past few months have also done something for the reputation of Giuseppe Bellusci, a centre-back who endures a strained relationship with United’s crowd but has never played better in his year-and-a-half at Elland Road. In spite of the availability of Sol Bamba, United’s club captain, Evans has been loathe to take Bellusci out of his team, though he will be forced to do so if Bellusci picks up a yellow card tomorrow. The defender is one caution away from a two-match suspension.
There were some at Leeds, including former head coach Uwe Rosler and executive director Adam Pearson, who were open to the idea of moving Bellusci on last summer. Some saw him as a problem, a difficult character in a squad which was crying out for harmony at the end of last season.
Bellusci is returning to the scene of a debacle tomorrow. Back in August 2014, his debut for Leeds at Vicarage Road ended in the concession of a penalty and a red card. United lost 4-1.
Evans said: “He’s another one who needs to feel valued. There’s a good defender in there, people are starting to see that, and as much as I’ve been critical of our defending this season I think it’s been decent recently. Again, there’s room for improvement but the lads at the back are putting us in a position where if we could do more in the final third, we’d be winning a lot of games.”
The renaissance among previously discarded players is only stretching so far. Leeds will look again at the end of the season for offers for Casper Sloth – the Danish midfielder who has never made anything of his move from Aarhus and has never been given much of a chance – and Evans appears as resistant to using winger Jordan Botaka as he was over Christmas.
Botaka is in his first year at Elland Road but has only another season left on his contract. The Congo international, who Leeds signed from Excelsior in Holland in August, has been playing for United’s Under-21s recently and will not be part of the 18-man squad at Vicarage Road. Evans said that the 22-year-old had a “big eight or nine weeks” ahead of him, with United’s head coach set on retaining his job in the summer and changing his squad substantially.
“We’re almost up to March and we’re a long way into the season now,” Evans said. “The fact with Jordan is that his performances in training and in the Under-21s haven’t been anywhere near good enough to deserve a place in the squad.
“There are days where he looks good in training and you look for him to kick on in the Under-21s. Then the reports come back and they’re disappointing. But he did well on Monday (against Nottingham Forest’s development squad) so that was encouraging. I’ll look for the same again for him next week. That’s the way he’ll get back in.”