'Four unbelievable centre halves' - Liam Cooper relishing healthy competition for Leeds United shirt

LEEDS United captain Liam Cooper admits he faces stiff competition for a Leeds United shirt - which can only be “healthy” for the Whites.

Friday, 9th April 2021, 5:16 pm
Updated Friday, 9th April 2021, 5:18 pm

Centre back Cooper returned from a recent absence due to illness when slotting straight back into the middle of the defence for last weekend’s Yorkshire derby at home to Sheffield United.

That meant fellow defender Pascal Struijk dropping to the bench to sit alongside another centre-back now pushing hard for a start in German international Robin Koch on his own return from injury.

United have endured regular frustration with injuries to their defenders this term, so much so that Leeds were fielding a 13th centre-back partnership of the season as Struijk started alongside Spanish international defender Diego Llorente in last month’s goalless draw at home to Chelsea.

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TOP OF THE BLOCKS: Leeds United captain Liam Cooper, right, stops a shot from Oli McBurnie upon his return to the Whites side in last weekend's 2-1 victory against Sheffield United. Photo by LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Llorente had only recently returned from a series of injuries that had kept the Spaniard to playing just 91 minutes within the first five months following his £18m switch from Real Sociedad back in September.

German international Koch had joined Leeds from SC Freiburg for £13m the previous month but then aggravated a knee injury in December’s clash at Chelsea which forced the defender to go under the knife.

Three months out followed but Koch, like Llorente, is now back for Whites head coach Marcelo Bielsa to pick from.

It all means that Cooper’s place in the side is far from guaranteed but that says the skipper can only benefit the team as a whole.

Asked if he had a point to prove upon returning to the team with so much competition for places at centre-back, Cooper told LUTV: “100 per cent.

“I am a big believer that it is only healthy for us.

“We’ve got four unbelievable centre halves chomping at the bit to play, a German international, a Spanish international and me and Pascal all going for them two positions.

“So you’ve got to apply yourself, train hard every day and do what the manager asks and play well when called upon.

“I don’t think there’s no egos or anything like that, there’s no bad feelings when we don’t play, we just push each other to be the best that we can and long may that continue.”

Cooper and Llorente were given the nod in last weekend’s Yorkshire derby against the Blades for which Koch replaced Stuart Dallas for a late run out in the 89th minute.

Struijk stayed on the bench and Cooper is the standard bearer as far as some of the figures go.

The Whites captain has had the most blocks (29), clearances (61) and interceptions (51) of any Whites player so far this Premier League season

“I like to defend!” smiled Cooper, assessing what that said about his game.

“I like to put my body on the line and hopefully the boys can see I can be counted on when we need to do our defensive duties.

“We are coming up against world class strikers and midfielders and wingers every single week and hopefully we can carry on doing what we are doing.

“Not shedding goals and scoring plenty, that’s the philosophy we have and we want to play.

“We want to stick to that and hopefully I can help the team get a few more clean sheets before the end of the season.”

Reflecting on how he was feeling personally upon his comeback - and with a trip to runaway leaders Manchester City next - Cooper reasoned: “I managed to train a few days last week which always helps, especially in the intensity we train at here, it’s tough.

“But I had a good week’s training leading up to the game and I felt good.

“Obviously in the last 15 to 20 minutes the fatigue always kicks in because you are not really match sharp.

“I missed a couple of games to be fair and then it was the international break.

“But I felt good, recovered well and I am looking forward to a very tough game at the weekend.”

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Thank you Laura Collins