As Liam Cooper admitted on Monday night, games against the Championship’s stronger sides are generally not where Leeds United run into trouble.
The division’s top six have come to respect the Elland Road club. Further down the table, teams find Leeds to be more vulnerable.
In nine meetings against the league’s six highest-ranked clubs, United have taken 10 points and lost three times; one of those defeats inflicted in stoppage-time by Brighton after Cooper was lost to injury and Leeds finished with 10 men. On Monday, Middlesbrough found that the brittle side who struggled through meetings with MK Dons and Bristol City and recently toiled at home to Nottingham Forest were blessed with a sudden lease of life.
The gap between Leeds and the top of the Championship is sizeable in terms of points and places but United have a knack of matching up well to clubs in the running for promotion.
Even at the Riverside, where Boro inflicted a 3-0 defeat on Leeds in September, Boro struck with their only shots on target and Aitor Karanka said the score was no “reflection of the game.”
Amid chances for both sides on Monday, he was indebted to goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos for an immense save from Souleymane Doukara towards the end of a 0-0 draw.
Cooper was at a loss to explain why Leeds, against a club in contention for the title, were capable of producing a performance so competitive in the midst of a campaign in which they have won only eight league matches.
“Middlesbrough are one of the favourites to get promoted but they came here and we made them look ordinary,” the centre-back said. “We applied ourselves properly and we were the better team.
“We’ve done well against the sides at the top, for whatever reason I don’t know. We can’t put our finger on it but everyone expects us to do well against the top teams. We have to apply ourselves like that every week and the manager told us afterwards that we’ve set the mark now.”
Leeds’ head coach, Steve Evans, has made no secret of his wish to change and improve a squad which he sees as inadequate in the Championship but he agreed with Cooper that United were being held back by their inability to regularly repeat performances like Monday’s.
“Our inconsistency has made us a mid-table side at this moment,” Evans said. “But to look at this performance, Aitor Karanka probably goes back on the coach and thinks that if Leeds play like that every week, other teams challenging around them aren’t going to have an easy job picking up three points against us.”
Boro had big chances at points of the game, with Giuseppe Bellusci clearing off the line from Gaston Ramirez, Christian Stuani driving a volley over the crossbar from close range and £9m signing Jordan Rhodes failing to convert a late header, but Doukara’s effort was as close to either team came to breaking the deadlock and Boro toiled in the closing stages, losing Ben Gibson to a red card in the 89th minute.
Cooper said: “A team like that are always going to have spells in a game but when they did have them I thought we sat in and defended properly. We could have nicked it at the end.
“I was gutted when the keeper saved Souley’s header. Fair play to him, it’s a great save and I thought it was in. He kept his team in it with that.
“Jordan (Rhodes) is a great finisher but as a back four I felt we dealt with their forwards really well. We also caused them problems and when you have all that it’s coming together. It has to count as a good display.”
Evans wanted his players to restore some confidence ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Watford, the fixture which is keeping the club’s season alive.
Cooper hopes that United’s habit of raising their game against higher-ranked teams will show against a Watford side who won promotion last season and have settled quickly into the Premier League.
Watford – another Italian-owned club, run by the Pozzo family – are in the top half of the division and are almost mathematically certain of a second season in that league.
Evans conceded when the draw for the fifth round was made that Leeds had landed an unfavourable match. “We have to turn it into a proper cup tie,” he said. “If we play them at their game, we’ll get beaten.” The club have sold an allocation of 4,200 tickets.
Leeds have not been beyond the fifth round since their relegation from the Premier League in 2004. Their last appearance at that stage, in 2013, ended in a 4-0 thrashing by Manchester City.
Cooper said: “I love the cup. It’s a brilliant competition. I love the tradition and you want to get as far as you can. As a footballer, you want to test yourself against the best and now we have a great opportunity to do that.
“It’s a big one for us and we’ll have a big following down there.
“We’ve done well against the good sides and Watford are definitely a good side. They’ve done well this season. We’ll have to be on top of our game but who’s to say we can’t go down there and cause an upset?”