Leeds United 2 Real Betis 3: Junior Firpo shines before Jamie Shackleton grabs limelight in reminder of Whites progress - Verdict
Summer signing Junior Firpo spent a good ten minutes chatting to the opposition players before Leeds United’s latest pre-season friendly.
For good reason.
Leeds might have signed Firpo for €15m from Barcelona but the left back’s career all began at Saturday’s opponents Real Betis.
Fittingly, after spending ten minutes talking to his ex-colleagues, Firpo then took just six minutes to create the opening goal of the game.
Firpo’s magical cross to set up a Patrick Bamford opener was unable to prevent Leeds from a 3-2 defeat yet the left back’s attacking play will have been a clear positive for Whites head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Yet whilst Firpo initially came back to haunt his former employers it was another Whites full back who proved the star of the show as Jamie Shackleton excelled in coming off the bench.
Shackleton, now 21, was named as one of six substitutes by Bielsa for the club’s latest pre-season friendly against a side who finished sixth in the 2020-21 La Liga campaign.
Managed by former Manchester City and West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini, Betis are consequently heading for the Europa League this season - somewhere Leeds will hope to find themselves in the not too distant future.
Even so, ensuring that they once again stick around in the country’s top flight will naturally be the primary goal for Bielsa’s side who will kick off their second season back in the big time with a trip to arch rivals Manchester United on Saturday, August 14.
Leeds have two more pre-season friendlies beforehand, facing Ajax in Amsterdam on Wednesday evening and then defending Europa League champions Villarreal no less in a behind closed doors fixture on Saturday evening.
Betis finished one place above Villarreal last time - highlighting the calibre of the opponent Leeds were facing in their latest friendly.
As is natural in pre-season, the fixture highlighted plenty of questions and areas for United to work on but Betis are clearly a very good side.
The Spaniards cut through United with too much ease and would have added to their tally of three goals with sharper finishing.
But Leeds also squandered opportunities to further boost their haul and the performance of Shackleton was an undoubted highlight in the contest played at the Loughborough University Stadium as Betis ended their English tour.
Key first team duo Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper were still missing but Bielsa made three changes to the side that lined up for United’s opening first team friendly at Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday night as Bamford was given his first minutes of the season in starting upfront.
Seven minutes in he scored, ending a lovely move down the left involving Jack Harrison and Firpo by glancing home Firpo’s cross.
Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas also came into the Leeds XI as Shackleton and Mateusz Klich dropped to the bench.
But Shackleton then found himself back on the pitch shortly after a free-flowing Betis had hit back with a double salvo of goals through Aitor and Borja Iglesias.
Those strikes put Betis 2-1 up by the 22nd minute and Leeds then lost Diego Llorente who seemingly injured himself in the build up to the second Betis goal.
Llorente walked off the pitch unaided, raising hope that the issue is only minor and his replacement Shackleton lined up at right back as Ayling moved into the heart of the defence.
And Whites Academy graduate Shackleton grasped his opportunity with both hands as part of an energetic display that saw him bombing up and down that side of the pitch whilst also dealing admirably with the strong Betis attacking threat.
Further chances arrived for both sides but it was Betis who bagged the game’s fourth goal in the 55th minute when a cross from Sabaly was parried into the net via a rare error from ‘keeper Illan Meslier.
But Leeds hit back with their second goal just two minutes later as Klich, who was also brought on from the bench, produced a cool finish from inside the box.
Klich’s strike proved the last goal of an entertaining game which ended in controversy as Betis striker Nabil Fekir showed he had not got the memo about the game being a pre-season friendly and kicked out at Pascal Struijk who was left needing treatment on the floor.
Fekir was booked but could and should have seen red following an incident which was not befitting of the general atmosphere around the ground with both Betis and Leeds supporters in good spirits.
The very presence of Betis and their fans in their green and white colours and the fact that Leeds were competing with them was a nice little reminder of how far the Whites have come.
Struijk is one of the club's players to have made the most rapid progress but Fekir's kick ended his afternoon a few minutes early.
After initially attempting to play on, Struijk was eventually taken off as young Whites forward Sam Greenwood was handed more minutes for United’s first team, coming on as an 88th-minute substitute.
Particularly after his superb free kick in the victory at Guiseley, Greenwood has enjoyed a decent pre-season and is clearly prominent in Bielsa’s thoughts when it comes to options from the bench for United’s first team.
The bench is where Shackleton found himself more often than not last season and the Academy graduate will have a hard job shifting Ayling at right back. Anyone would.
But at 21 Shackleton remains a player with time on his side and one who can also play in a variety of positions as and when required to answer Bielsa’s call.
Two weeks before the new season starts, Shackleton did just that against Betis and having also excelled against Blackburn is fast becoming the stand out player of United’s pre-season.
Leeds United: Meslier, Ayling, Firpo (Klich 45), Koch, Bamford (Roberts 45), Raphinha, Llorente (Shackleton 24), Dallas, Rodrigo, Struijk (Greenwood 88), Harrison (Costa 66). Subs not used: Caprile.
Real Betis: Silva, Ruiz, N Fekir, Iglesias (Calderon 66), Canales, Moreno (William 66), Guardado (Camarasa 61, Hermoso 90, Sabaly, Aitor, Rodri (Tello 76), Edgar. Subs not used: Joel, Paul, Sidnei, Loren, Y. Fekir, Rober, Delgado, Raul.
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Thank you Laura Collins