Arsenal v Leeds United: Forgotten tie can live long in the memory - Hay

Simon Grayson's ban on discussions about Arsenal was an example of a manager making the right noises.

Even as he said it, Leeds United's manager must have known that a month as physically exhausting as December would starve the FA Cup of any oxygen.

The distraction of tomorrow's third-round tie can be gauged by the fact that, prior to full-time at Cardiff City on Tuesday night, Grayson scarcely mentioned it once.

In the weeks after his players dug themselves out of trouble against Crystal Palace he was not even asked about it. The Arsenal fixture knew its place.

Robert Snodgrass, United's winger, gave an insight into the attitude of the squad in Leicester on Boxing Day. "To be honest, I've kind of forgotten that the Arsenal game was coming," he said.

"There's too much else going on and too many other things to think about."

On the strength of that comment alone, it is safe to assume that Leeds' appearance at the Emirates Stadium will not pass in a pique of headless enthusiasm. There was little to be gained from players who dwelt at length on the tie they grasped when the draw for the third round took place in late November.

The significance of the occasion is bound to strike tomorrow morning, assuming it hasn't already. Grayson's players, almost without exception, will be far beyond their comfort zone.

Leeds United as a club are historically accustomed to this fixture, but the squad of 18 chosen by Grayson will contain as few as two who have served time in the Premier League. Only at a club like Arsenal will a

draw involving Leeds pay out at odds of 5/1.

Wagers of that sort will be made in hope, rather than expectation, but United have form at this stage of the FA Cup. There are parallels with last season's game at Old Trafford, none of which make an upset probable tomorrow but all of which imply that the club's preparation has been as consummate as it could have been in a period when Arsenal play their fifth game in 12 days and their second in less than five.

Leeds' approach to their tie with Manchester United a year ago was memorable for being so restrained, in public at least. Interest in the fixture was unprecedented in the context of six years outside the Premier League, but Grayson's players were not infected by it.

Four days before the tie, Richard Naylor said – without a hint of irony – that "the game was a distraction really". He added: "I'd prefer to have a couple more league games and get a few more points on the board."

You wondered at the time whether Naylor was playing possum; whether he was purposefully giving the impression that Leeds' chance of winning in Manchester fell a long way short of slim.

His voice and body language did not give the impression of the confidence displayed by him at Old Trafford later that week.

A light-hearted press conference at Thorp Arch was the antithesis of the chest-thumping warm-up those of us in attendance expected. "There's not much love lost with Manchester United," Naylor said, "but I don't hate them as a club. Players look at things like that in a different way to supporters."

On reflection, his answers to many questions were cleverly judged. It was not in his interest, or in Grayson's for that matter, to make more of a fixture that was already drenched in hype. Any optimism that existed amongst United's players was disguised externally, as it has been over the past month.

Naylor's insistence that the squad ought not to enjoy the tie at Old Trafford "too much" was another way of saying play the game, not the occasion.

Leeds were able to do so on account of two crucial factors – the positivity of long-term form and the availability of the vast majority of their players. They are blessed with those advantages again this weekend, even allowing for a first defeat in 13 games.

Eight and a half thousand of their supporters will be at Arsenal tomorrow, little more than half of the number who swamped United's ticket office and forced an early end to the acceptance of applications. But as the club's former captain, Dominic Matteo, said this week, the result at the Emirates is not dependent on them. A side like Arsenal are too proficient to succumb to atmospheric pressure

alone.

In the aftermath of the victory at Old Trafford, it was virtually impossible to pinpoint United's finest performer. Arguments for Naylor, Patrick Kisnorbo and Casper Ankergren were all strong as were those for Jermaine Beckford, Jonathan Howson and Neil Kilkenny. None of Michael Doyle's 52 performances for Leeds were better – the squad were individually brilliant and collectively inspired, the prerequisite for any upset.

An upset is a wild expectation, as Grayson would admit himself. But his squad are as well placed to terrorise Arsenal as they were Manchester United, and it would not be his style to treat the game with inevitability.

He was asked before the tie at Old Trafford whether his side could beat Manchester United. "By the time kick-off arrives," he replied, "the players will believe they can."

Expect him to foster the same belief again.

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