Cardiff City haven’t lost at home since mid-September – at the hands of promotion-chasing Hull City – but Steve Evans reckons Leeds have got what it takes to win in South Wales. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s penance for their beating at Brighton was a slow, bitter, depressing journey home, ending in the early hours of the morning. “The long trips go quickly when you have a good night,” Steve Evans said. “On the way home from Brighton we counted every mile – every horrible mile.”
Eight days on, he and his players will try to avoid another experience like it. There are similarities between Brighton and tonight’s opponents, Cardiff City: two clubs situated 200 miles south and two clubs with promotion on the agenda, helped by very strong home records. Brighton’s defeats on the south coast total three this season. Cardiff last lost at their own ground in mid-September, at the hands of Hull City.
Leeds, nonetheless, are due a result which catches the Championship by surprise. Saturday’s win over Bolton Wanderers atoned in some way for their 4-0 hammering at The Amex last Monday but a 2-1 victory over Hull in December is the last time United shaded a game in which the odds were clearly against them.
Evans knows that other managers in the Championship – Gary Rowett, Mick McCarthy and Carlos Carvalhal – would appreciate an away win in Cardiff this evening but Leeds’ head coach is still more interested in seeing his squad raise their standards. He also conceded that the crowd that goes with them to Wales will be owed far more than they got at Brighton.
“If you’re not of a Leeds United persuasion then you maybe look at the game and think it’s a home banker,” Evans said. “Us going to Cardiff and winning might surprise some people but it wouldn’t shock me. Whatever anyone says, we’re good enough to go there and take three points.
“I’m not ignoring Cardiff’s record and they’re playing very well. I watched them win 2-0 at Bristol City on Saturday and it should have been four or five. But we beat them at Elland Road (in November) and deservedly so in my opinion.
“We’ve got good players here. I know we’ve gone through a tough time but there are talented players in my squad. It’s about performance. If eight or nine of ours are close to the top of their game tonight, we’ll come away with something. That’s a given. And let’s not kid ourselves – we owe the fans who are travelling a performance and a result.”
United’s defeat at Brighton was like lighting a fuse, condemning Evans and his players to fierce criticism, raising questions about Evans’ future as head coach and aggravating the tense relationship between owner Massimo Cellino and sections of Leeds’ support. Saturday’s win over Bolton was preceded by more protests against Cellino but a 2-1 win over Bolton, earned by Mirco Antenucci’s brace, bought the club some respite.
Without that result Leeds would have been in the thick of the scramble to avoid relegation but three more victories should put Evans’ squad beyond harm’s way. This season was not supposed to follow a plot so underwhelming but comfortable survival is Evans’ priority with the play-offs long gone.
“Against the teams higher up the league, we’ve been a bit unlucky at times,” Evans said. “We probably deserved to beat Derby in December and we had enough chances to beat Middlesbrough recently. That’s what I mean when I say that on our day we can compete with these sides. Our problem’s been consistency and that really comes down to the fact that the squad needs strengthening.
“But it’s been a little while since we had a positive result which made people take notice. What I want, and what we need to do next season, is to be in a position where a team beating Leeds does teams at the top of the table a favour, rather than us doing favours for others, and I’m only interested in how we play.”
Antenucci’s double on Saturday marked the first time since the end of December that Leeds have found a way of scoring twice in a league fixture. Cardiff had a similar problem for a while and when Alex Mowatt inflicted a 1-0 defeat on them at Elland Road in November, ending United’s eight-month wait for a home win in the process, his 30-yard effort was one of only four shots on target.
Leeds’ victory over Bolton was still a necessary response to their capitulation at Brighton; a result which, according to Evans, said much about the attitude of his players.
“We were under big pressure and the only thing that mattered was the result,” Evans said. “You want to play well and you can’t ignore performances but when you’re coming off the back of 4-0 at Brighton, and 4-0 the way it happened, it takes real determination to put that right straight away.
“I thought our captain (Sol Bamba) epitomised the performance. He had a bad night at Brighton, as most of us did, and he knew it. But he came on at half-time (against Bolton) after we lost Liam Cooper and he was simply outstanding. He was strong, he won so many challenges and he got himself in the right positions at the right times. It’s easy to point the finger at players but that win on Saturday took real character.
“We need more of that and we need more points than we’ve been getting. I’m not pretending otherwise. But I think Brighton made us look like a far worse team than we are.
“That’s not how we’ve been playing week after week and that’s why I can go to Cardiff with confidence. Other managers will tell you that when we play well, we’re a difficult team to play against.”