Illan Meslier pulling out all the stops to provide welcome relief for Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa
Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa is continually having to deal with multiple injuries to options in the same area of the pitch.
Multiple injuries full-stop at present with 11 players sidelined before, during or after Sunday’s FA Cup clash at West Ham. Worse still, the absentees are regularly in the same position.
But not, mercifully, in goal where Illan Meslier is currently a rare ever-present and as important as ever between the sticks.
Heading into Sunday’s cup tie at the London Stadium, Bielsa was clearly extremely mindful of the contest affecting this weekend’s Premier League rematch.
“How do you harmonise a competition but not link it with a repercussion that it has on the next game in the Premier League?” asked United’s head coach.
With nine players missing before the contest, Bielsa’s options were limited and the Whites boss sided with a blend of experience and youth.
Three Whites youngsters were handed their full Leeds debuts as Leo Hjelde, Lewis Bate and Sam Greenwood were named in the XI, Hjelde and Bate making their first Whites appearances of any kind.
But United’s Argentine head coach made only four changes to the line-up that began the previous weekend’s Premier League clash at home to Burnley which meant a 23rd consecutive start for Meslier in goal at West Ham although that is not the only stat that highlights the importance of his presence.
No goalkeeper in the Premier League has saved more shots so far this season and Meslier has played every single minute of every league game and every minute of all three of United’s cup games.
Summer recruit Kristoffer Klaesson has continually sat on the bench as the back-up custodian and, six months after joining the Whites from Valarenga, the 21-year-old Norwegian is still awaiting his first minutes for United’s first team.
That moment looked like it might present itself towards the end of the first half of Sunday’s clash at the London Stadium as Meslier and Junior Firpo collided in mid-air when looking to deal with a Hammers cross, Meslier looking in clear discomfort as he kicked out his legs with his face down on the turf.
The television cameras then panned towards Bielsa, a coach who was already dealing with practically a full team out.
But an injury to Meslier would present a different picture altogether; the Frenchman is clearly one of United’s most important players and belying his 21 years of age.
The France under-21s ’keeper has made 62 appearances for Leeds since joining from Lorient in August 2019 on a season-long loan but his first Whites start did not present itself until the following January when the custodian took his place between the sticks for the third-round FA Cup clash at Arsenal.
First-choice ’keeper Kiko Casilla sat on the bench and Casilla was handed an eight-game ban for racism the following month.
Meslier’s league debut arrived the next day in the Championship clash at Hull City and, since then, the Frenchman started 45 of United’s next 51 games, taking the rise to the Premier League in his stride since United signed the stopper on a permanent deal for a snip at £5m following promotion in June 2020.
Casilla was given a final outing between the sticks of the 2019-20 promotion-winning campaign after serving his ban when stepping out for the season finale at Derby County, by which time Leeds had already been crowned champions.
Casilla was then handed just five first-team starts upon Leeds’ first season back in the Premier, the Spaniard taking in the September EFL Cup clash at home to Hull City and January’s 3-0 FA Cup loss at Crawley Town in addition to the Premier League games at home to Brighton in January and the May contests away at Southampton and at home to West Brom - the season finale.
Casilla then joined Elche in the summer on a season-long loan - the Spaniard replaced by Klaesson - and Meslier has played every minute of every game since.
That looked set to change after he collided with Firpo on Sunday afternoon though, for once, Bielsa did not have another key injury to contend with.
The sooner the Whites boss gets his injured players back the better. In the meantime, the assured continued presence of one very talented French ’keeper has been an extremely welcome relief.
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Thank you Laura Collins