A weird obsession, Leeds United madness and a toxic combination - Graham Smyth's FA Cup Verdict

No one obsesses over the transfer window more than the English said Jesse Marsch, ahead of a month in which it can feel like the football itself gets in the way.
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Transfer stories dominate in a weird, almost perverse manner. It’s especially weird mid-season when games are coming thick and fast and teams can require so much more than an extra body to eliminate their longstanding issues. People take their eye off the ball to look at the shiny things in the window. And it was amid a tale of Leeds United interest in a young man neither training nor playing, that actual Whites players went to play against Cardiff City in the FA Cup.

Georginio Rutter was taken out of training by his club Hoffenheim on Sunday, in a very public fashion. The Bundesliga side expressed concerns over their duty of care to the interests of both the club and the player and though they did not name Leeds United, they referenced Saturday's breaking story about a Premier League outfit.

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So all the talk, as Joe Gelhardt, Mateo Joseph and Sonny Perkins warmed up at Cardiff City Stadium, was of a player of a similar age who may soon join them, or indeed replace them in Marsch's squad. A penny for their thoughts, at Vale Resort, as the story broke on Saturday.

But on game day, though Rutter may have been occupying minds in an away end hosting 6,000-plus and even thoughts of those in the visiting directors' seats, there was the minor issue of the FA Cup to fixate upon. It's a competition that has taught this club consistently and painfully in recent years that those on the pitch cannot afford to let their focus waver in the slightest.

Marsch vowed to take the competition seriously but as ever that stance was dictated by availability, as the team-sheet showed. Illan Meslier, Jack Harrison and Marc Roca were the players Marsch spoke of having niggles in the lead up to the game and the latter two were only fit enough for the bench. Liam Cooper, Robin Koch and Tyler Adams were all left out entirely as they nursed knocks, and though Max Wober got his first involvement since his move from Salzburg, it was as a substitute.

As was always likely, the cup tie proved another opportunity to look at some of what lies beneath the first choice XI at Leeds. Opportunities in recent seasons haven't always been taken by fringe players and Under 21s playing up, a point Gjanni Alioski once forcibly made in the wake of a League Cup exit.

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In Wales, however, it wasn't just the youngsters struggling to impress. The FA Cup and Cardiff City are, for Leeds, a toxic mix but even the Bluebirds couldn't believe how easily they corroded the visiting backline en route to a 2-0 half-time lead, before madness eventually engulfed them.

LEEDS MADNESS - Who wouldn't want to be part of scenes like the wild sea of limbs that greeted Sonny Perkins' late equaliser for Leeds United in the FA Cup at Cardiff City. Pic: GettyLEEDS MADNESS - Who wouldn't want to be part of scenes like the wild sea of limbs that greeted Sonny Perkins' late equaliser for Leeds United in the FA Cup at Cardiff City. Pic: Getty
LEEDS MADNESS - Who wouldn't want to be part of scenes like the wild sea of limbs that greeted Sonny Perkins' late equaliser for Leeds United in the FA Cup at Cardiff City. Pic: Getty

As starts go it wasn't bad from Marsch's men. They bossed proceedings. It wasn't perfect though. Darko Gyabi, who had an early effort fly wide, showed his quick feet at one end to beat two men and force a corner with a blocked shot, then raced back the other way to clear up after Sheyi Ojo blew past Diego Llorente.

For all their possession and territory, the Whites reached the midpoint of the half with just a Crysencio Summerville chance to shout about, the winger scooping an effort over the top from Willy Gnonto's cross.

And Cardiff, who had barely threatened at all, duly took the lead with their first opportunity. Mark Harris stole in on the blindside of captain-for-the-day Pascal Struijk and drew Joel Robles from his line to make an initial save, the attack staying alive long enough for Jaden Philogene to pop up at the back post and find the unguarded net.

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Gnonto picked up a booking for a dive in the area, Struijk got one for tripping Harris and Cardiff, who hadn't scored in more than five hours of Championship football, got a second. Yet again, a blindside run did serious damage, Sheyi Ojo darting into a huge space behind Diego Llorente to meet and control Andy Rinomhota's ball before clipping it beyond Robles. It was as nice a moment for the goalscorer as it was its creator, Leeds-born Rinomhota who, if Mark Bowen was to be believed in 2019, was a player once on the Whites' radar.

From that moment until the break, Cardiff were enjoying themselves and the away end were struggling to contain their frustration. At Jarred Gillett's half-time whistle they could hold it in no longer and boos filled the air.

A serious second half fightback was required and it has to be said the initial signs were not good. Leeds played some mediocre stuff and Marsch eventually turned to Max Wober, Cody Drameh and Rodrigo to liven things up. Their presence was much needed. Rasmus Kristensen had a nightmare at right-back, Leeds needed somethinge extra in midfield – Wober’s third position – and the Cardiff centre-backs were having it all too much their own way. Rodrigo could change that.

The substitutions coincided with a spell of Leeds pressure and a couple of corners, one of which was headed agonisingly wide of the far post by Struijk. Cardiff suddenly found themselves under pressure and when they switched off at another corner, Leeds took it quickly, Greenwood curled in an inviting ball and Rodrigo nipped ahead of his marker to head past Alnwick.

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This was the blue touch paper, the substitutes and a reinvigorated away end sparking, at long last, the feeling that something good was coming. When Firpo burst into the area to try and finish a move that he himself started, his goalbound shot looked for all the world to be just that, until it was palmed wide quite brilliantly, by left-back Joel Bagan.

The penalty didn't make the difference - Rodrigo's very saveable effort was beaten away by Alnwick - but the red card did. Cardiff eventually ran out of steam and out of bodies as Leeds piled forward and found space.

Mateo Joseph wasted a glorious chance to level but his Under 21s team-mate Sonny Perkins did not, flicking the ball in from a yard or so deep in stoppage time after Firpo had turned a Willy Gnonto cross towards him.

An antidote for Marsch, on what could have ended as a poisonous afternoon, and a third straight game unbeaten, but far from the fix to all of his current problems. Holding a Championship struggler in the FA Cup is no feather for any cap and the lack of control of the game and the scoreboard are a serious concern. Chaos appears Leeds' best route to points because control appears beyond them. It will take more than the signing of a striker to fix that. It has to be Marsch’s obsession until he and Leeds get it right on both sides of the ball.

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With no training session or game to prepare for, Rutter was presumably watching the madness unfold for his potential employers from Portugal. Being part of anything like that first half would not a selling point make. Confusion still reigns over what it is Leeds are supposed to look like in possession in too-long spells in too many matches and Marsch continues to ask for better tactical understanding from a squad who have months and in some cases years of experience of his football.

Scoring in front of the wild sea of limbs created by Perkins late on, however, would appeal to any goal-getter and Elland Road is a great place to be when you’re scoring. The Premier League is the place to be when you’re dreaming of bigger things. A penny, then, for Rutter’s thoughts.

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