Marius Zaliukas feels the FA Cup clash at Rochdale is a chance to refresh the United squad after the festive period. Phil Hay reports.
Marius Zaliukas was among football’s mass of unemployed for five months last year. “No fun” is how the Lithuanian describes it, somewhat underplaying the anxiety felt by players without a club.
Leeds United brought him back into his comfort zone in the final week of October. On Tuesday evening they extended his short-term contract to the end of next season, an offer based on just 10 appearances for the club. Their haste to commit begged the question of how Zaliukas found himself unattached for so long.
The games either side of him signing his new deal – Sunday’s defeat at Nottingham Forest and a punishing afternoon against Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Day – saw Zaliukas somewhere below his finest but the club and their support have warmed to him in two short months. He might be classed as the sort of player Leeds traditionally appreciate; hard, uncompromising, in where it hurts. United need those traits as they fight to emerge from a forgettable Christmas.
After 16 straight Championship matches, United break from the league tomorrow for a visit to Rochdale in the third round of the FA Cup. It is, as ever, a lesser priority than certain others this season but the FA Cup is an opportunity for Leeds to reacquaint themselves with better form and a winning scoreline.
“I’m pleased it’s the FA Cup this week,” manager Brian McDermott said. “It gives us the chance to freshen up and we need that.”
Zaliukas – a Scottish Cup winner at Heart of Midlothian in 2012 – sees the game at Rochdale in the same way: a means of drawing a line under the 10 points dropped before and after Christmas. Leeds sagged badly against Blackburn on Wednesday, conceding twice in the first half and failing to fight back despite a fraught, end-to-end battle after the interval. Their next victory will be welcome when it comes.
“The points total (over Christmas) is disappointing and obviously we want to get back on winning ways as soon as possible,” Zaliukas said.
“We wanted to start the year on the front foot. But in the first half against Blackburn we were disappointing. We came back in the second.
“We needed to start the game like we did in the second half. We were a little slow. If we’d done that, everything would have been okay. Of course we’ve been playing every three days but you have to do that at this time of year. The cup game will be a good one for us. We’re looking forward to a win.”
Whether Zaliukas plays tomorrow remains to be seen. Others among the collection of players relied on heavily throughout the past fortnight might also be rested at Spotland, despite Rochdale’s high position in League Two and the realisation that a third-round draw away to Keith Hill’s side is no gimme.
But Zaliukas’ fitness has been surprisingly reliable, unaffected by his months of relative inactivity between leaving Hearts and joining Leeds. He went on trial to Rangers and spent time with Queens Park Rangers, both of whom thought seriously about signing him. In that period, his only competitive appearances were made for Lithuania’s national side, including one in a World Cup qualifier against Bosnia two days before his trial at Thorp Arch began.
He made his United debut as a substitute in their 2-0 win over Yeovil Town in October and started for the first time against Middlesbrough after Scott Wootton twisted an ankle at Charlton. The 30-year-old has been the middle rung in McDermott’s back three ever since.
Leeds initially tied him down until the end of this season but the arrival of the January transfer window this week made the club reconsider his position. His new deal runs to the end of the 2014-15 term, removing Zaliukas from the list of players who are waiting to see what United plan for them when the summer arrives and their contracts expire.
“Obviously I am very happy,” Zaliukas said. “First of all I have to say thanks to the gaffer who brought me over here and enabled me to sign the contract.
“I had a couple of months (without a club) where I was under pressure. Four months ago it was no fun. I’m happy to be here and playing for the manager.”
Zaliukas is United’s most recent signing, the sixth made by McDermott as manager, but others will follow this month. Transfers were planned when Leeds were in fine fettle last month and the past four results have heightened the urgency of McDermott’s dealings.
His side struggled to paint themselves as a promotion-chasing team over Christmas but the Championship table still encourages them to think as one. They are eighth in the table after 24 games, a near mirror-image of their position at the same stage of last season, and the one consolation of the past two weeks has been the inability of many clubs to leave them behind. Instead, a mass of teams are congested below sixth place.
McDermott praised his squad for their effort after full-time on Wednesday, admitting to the failures of the first half against Blackburn but saying that he and his staff were “squeezing everything” out of the players at Elland Road. Zaliukas remains optimistic about the likelihood of a top-six finish but agreed that new signings and “more competition between players” was the key to the second half of McDermott’s first full season as boss.
“The minimum task is to get in the top six and then to get promoted,” Zaliukas said. “We’re trying to do that and hopefully we will.
“Probably in a couple of positions we need more competition between players. Obviously new players can help us.
“But so far everyone is fairly happy and we want to achieve as much as possible.”