THE carrot was dangled before kick-off last night in the form of a fourth-round tie at either AFC Wimbledon or Sutton United.
As prizes go, there are others that Leeds United would crawl over broken glass to claim but they took it regardless in a style which is fast becoming customary under Garry Monk.
Round three sent the club to the no mod-cons surroundings of the Abbey Stadium and the next stage will offer even less in the way of luxury but Leeds are not being precious about the games they win. Nor are they making life unduly easy. Monk was staring down the barrel of an upset as Cambridge United threw their weight around and ran the show but a few choice words at half-time changed the tone and goals from Stuart Dallas and Alex Mowatt put Cambridge away.
Monk has pulled off that trick before, as recently as last week’s victory against Rotherham United, and some guidance was necessary after 45 disjointed and wasted minutes. Leeds have endured FA Cup humiliation in these parts before, when Lubomir Michalik ducked and the postman headed home at the far post on a miserable day at Histon, and defeat to Cambridge would not have been on that scale but redeeming features were scarce until Dallas replied to a 25th-minute goal from Uche Ikpeazu.
Ikpeazu had ended a period spent bullying Monk’s defence by driving a shot past Marco Silvestri and giving the broadcaster who chose to televise the match the scenario they wanted. There was always a chance that Cambridge would dislodge the applecart, so good have their recent results been, but Monk had not counted on the furthest reaches of his squad failing him so badly until the second half. His preferred line-up seemed settled before yesterday’s game. It felt positively rigid as his players trudged from the field a goal down at the interval.
As bad as it had been, the competence of United’s rally was impressive and Dallas’ clinical finish on 56 minutes was followed by another from Alex Mowatt seven minutes later. In teeing up Leeds’ first goal and scoring their second – his first strike for fully 14 months – a hitherto-forgotten Mowatt was one of the winners on a wet and exacting evening.
Monk in contrast came out of it with a selection crisis brewing. Leeds’ season moves on and Derby County on Friday, the more critical fixture of the week and a match which could give United the comfort of an eight-point advantage over seventh place in the Championship, now looms incredibly large with Kyle Bartley potentially the only available centre-back. Monk can at least face up to that without dissecting an early cup exit.
If the weather and the surroundings – upgraded but not so far away from the ground which hosted Leeds’ last competitive visit in 1984 – gave an upset every chance, Cambridge’s form was more notable still. There was a stage of this season when Shaun Derry, like Monk, was reliant on some tolerance and patience from the boardroom but the club have flown in League Two since mid-November. “We want to get through and we want to win,” said Derry before kick-off. As a statement of intent, his team was barely weakened.
Monk gave out an identical message while alluding to the heavily-changed line-up he planned to field. There were eight alterations in all with Pontus Jansson, Gaetano Berardi and Souleymane Doukara the surviving members of the team who beat Rotherham United last week. Jansson’s selection, with the centre-back a booking away from a two-game ban, caused a little surprise and ultimately came at a predictable cost.
Last night’s appearance pushed him to within one game of activating the option allowing Leeds to sign him permanently from Torino and a yellow card after 24 minutes will prevent him from reaching the magic figure of 22 until the last weekend of the transfer window. Monk will be without the defender when Derby come to Elland Road and that realisation was the most galling moment of a grim first half. It was compounded by another centre-back, Liam Cooper, limping off in the second.
BT Sport’s insistence on making the draw for round four before either side had kicked a ball in anger meant the tie on offer was an open secret from the first whistle. Cambridge’s energy did not hint at any disappointment on their part. Marcus Antonsson, one of Monk’s many changes, clipped Cambridge’s bar with a cross at the end of United’s first attack but Leeds did not take long to learn about the strength of Ikpeazu, Derry’s marauding centre-forward.
He and Jansson locked horns immediately, drawn to each other by the promise of a scrap, but it took a diving parry from Silvestri to keep out a low shot from Ikpeazu after Cambridge won possession on the right and found the striker unmarked on the other side of the field. By then, with six minutes gone, Monk knew his side were in a game.
Luke Berry, Cambridge’s 15-goal number 10, came just as close with a whipped free-kick which curled narrowly wide on 15 minutes and Monk stood patiently in his technical area, waiting for his strategy to click. Revised line-ups had not prevented Leeds from reaching the League Cup’s quarter-finals before Christmas and there were results in that run, not least a first-round win at Fleetwood Town, which required the skin of their teeth but pressure came to bear last night when Ikpeazu found the net on 25 minutes.
The goal stemmed from a free-kick which Jansson conceded by catching Berry with an elbow a few yards outside Silvestri’s box. Referee Craig Pawson booked the Swede, bringing an exasperated reaction from him, and Monk looked on as Berry’s effort from the set piece deflected to Ikpeazu inside the penalty area. The forward steadied himself before smashing a low shot off the inside of a post and beyond Silvestri.
There was no denying that Cambridge were worth it or that the game had been uncomfortable for Leeds in the build-up to Ikpeazu’s goal. Bookings for Berardi and Kalvin Phillips for heavy fouls around the halfway line said as much. Pressure from Cambridge came regularly and Stuart Dallas’ reaction to a corner which dropped into Silvestri’s six-yard box averted what would have been an easy tap-in for any of Derry’s players.
There was so little from Leeds in return that Monk was compelled to think again at half-time.
Only Mowatt, with a 41st-minute strike from range, came anywhere near beating goalkeeper Will Norris with a genuine effort on target but that opportunity, tipped over the bar by Norris, led to another immediately. When Dallas flighted the corner in, Cooper met it with a downward header which Norris met on his goalline. It was novel by that stage to see Norris involved.
Monk replaced Berardi with Lewie Coyle at the break, a like-for-like swap, but there was a lasting fragility about his defence for as long as the tie remained at 1-0. Silvestri flapped at a corner in the 49th minute but redeemed himself by stopping James Dunne’s sliced volley creeping in under his bar and Leeds continued to wait for inspiration until Mowatt delivered it on 56 minutes.
The midfielder, who on a rare outing had shown some nice touches in amongst the mediocrity, floated a lovely cross to Stuart Dallas at the far post, inviting a downward header which the winger placed carefully into the far corner of the net. Monk drew breath in relief and sent on Kemar Roofe for Doukara whose display had never risen above terrible. The quick swing in momentum was tangible.
With 63 minutes gone Leeds struck again as Jansson met Dallas’ corner with a nodded finish which Mowatt flicked past Norris.
Once bitten, Monk’s players did not look back or put themselves at undue risk. Silvestri was isolated until a late Piero Mingoia attempt drew him into a nervous stop and Monk would have settled for his lot were it not for the loss of Cooper to injury with 19 minutes to play.
Having solved one conundrum at half-time last night, he has another to deal with before Derby descend on Elland Road.
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