As hard sells go, a second instalment of Leeds United versus Blackburn Rovers in the space of eight days was right up there with Mark Aizlewood’s signed shirts.
Some 8,488 came back for more last night but interest in the EFL Cup will surge again after Leeds edged their way into round four.
The club’s reward for that progress might manifest itself in a more attractive draw than yesterday’s tie but the line-ups used by Garry Monk and Owen Coyle and the size of the attendance at Elland Road was proof that Leeds won the contest which mattered more last week.
On that night both clubs were crying out for three points and Blackburn might rue the way in which the Championship fixture got away from them more than they rue their exit from the League Cup. Monk, however, was given the best of both worlds as Leeds did as their head coach asked and continued their momentum with a third straight victory.
There have been points of this season where Monk must have questioned where or how his next win would come but his squad have rattled them off since starting September with a home defeat to Huddersfield Town.
Huddersfield’s head coach, David Wagner, enjoyed that game so much that he was back in the stands yesterday for no discernible reason and Leeds’ attendance was their lowest for a competitive fixture since a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win over Darlington in October 2009. The search before then went back to a League Cup victory over Barnet in 2006.
For much of the night the contest got the crowd it deserved and it took until the final half-hour – perhaps wary of the threat of extra-time – for the teams to seek to force the issue. As he had in their previous meeting, Chris Wood appeared as a substitute and rose above the scramble with a close-range winner five minutes from time.
The striker’s finish last night was just as scrambled as before, headed home at the second attempt after David Raya parried a Pablo Hernandez effort and then blocked Wood’s first shot, but by then it was evening when any strike from any distance would have done.
His tap-in navigated the third round and the competition promises to get more intriguing from here. Elland Road will not see an 8,000 turn-out in the last 16, if Leeds are drawn at home.
Monk made seven changes from Saturday’s win at Cardiff and Coyle surpassed that figure by making nine from Blackburn’s victory over Rotherham United. Only seven of the players who started last Tuesday’s match between the clubs retained their places second time around.
Having breathed life into their respective Championship seasons, neither Monk nor Coyle were about to gamble much on a game which pulled in fewer fans than United’s annual pre-season friendly at Elland Road.
The tie, all the same, was the gateway to a stage of the League Cup which Leeds last reached under Neil Warnock, the highlight of his underwhelming reign. Monk’s players were not slow to show intent and it took less than 60 seconds for Lewie Coyle, Luke Ayling’s stand-in at right-back, to draw a fingertip save from Raya with an opportunistic volley. A sweet hit from 25 yards was met by a top-drawer reaction but did not succeed in setting the game alight.
Blackburn responded quickly as Liam Feeney scraped the side-netting with a back-post header and Stephen Hendrie – the cousin of former Leeds’ striker John – bundled a volley just wide but Coyle was turning to his substitutes with only eight minutes gone after injury forced defender Scott Wharton the leave the field. Monk tried his best to avoid any setbacks by leaving out an ill Pontus Jansson and refusing to risk Liam Bridcutt’s swollen foot. The pair should return for Saturday’s league game at home to Ipswich Town.
There were parts of the first half which promised something as Eunan O’Kane tried to find his range of passing in a deep-lying midfield position but Raya and Marco Silvestri – playing for only the second time this season – were scarcely bothered following the initial exchange of chances. After much merriment about the thunder and lightning at Elland Road last week, the crowd were diverted and briefly amused when one of referee Darren Deadman’s assistants broke his flag. Acknowledging the general mood, Deadman handed him a new one with a theatrical bow.
Silvestri’s first save of note came soon after and three minutes from the interval when he dived to keep Jack Byrne’s curling finish out of the top corner as Leeds tried to see off a corner. His stop was an impressive one, in amongst some poor distribution and clearances directly into touch. The goalkeeper order at Elland Road at present has Rob Green clear at the top of it.
To the likes of Marcus Antonsson and Kemar Roofe, Monk’s advice at the break might have been to shoot on sight after long spells in which Leeds refused several opportunities to tee off. Roofe had a go immediately after the restart, hacking an effort wide from the edge of the box, and Antonsson appealed tamely for a penalty after a tug of his shirt inside Rovers’ box. Deadman waved the claim away.
A flurry of changes came as a problem sustained by Ronaldo Vieira brought Pablo Hernandez from the bench and Coyle waited until after the hour to introduce Marvin Emnes, the striker whose goal nearly rescued a result for Blackburn at Elland Road last week. Emnes took less than 10 minutes to get in behind United’s defence and force Silvestri to save with his legs. A weak punch sent the rebound to Feeney but Silvestri redeemed himself by diving to meet the winger’s effort. They were crucial misses by Rovers at a key stage for the second time in a week.
Before long Monk gave the signal to Wood and the striker nailed Rovers again, nodding past Raya in the 85th minute as the unfortunate keeper was swamped on his goalline. Wood’s sixth goal of the season could pay off nicely when the draw for round four is made tonight.
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