Defender Gaetano Berardi was sidelined by a hamstring injury suffered on the opening day of the campaign, but is now playing his part in the play-off push. Phil Hay reports.
Sixty one games and counting for Gaetano Berardi as his wait for a first Leeds United goal goes on. His shot against a post towards the end of Monday’s win over Rotherham United brought a philosophical reaction from a player who rarely finds himself so far up the pitch and has never scored a league goal in his career. “Maybe next time,” he said.
Berardi beat Lewis Price but struck the goalkeeper’s right-hand upright with 11 minutes of the game to go, sprinting clean through as Rotherham sagged under the weight of constant attacks.
A goal at that stage would have made no difference with Leeds 2-0 up and cruising, and Chris Wood scored seconds later to wrap up another league victory. Berardi, who went through Brescia and Sampdoria without breaking his duck before coming to England, might have savoured a personal milestone but it mattered less to Garry Monk than another tidy display from the 28-year-old at left-back.
Monk recalled Berardi to his starting line-up for United’s Boxing Day fixture at Preston North End, using him as a replacement for the injured Charlie Taylor. Taylor was Monk’s preferred left-back, a fixture in his team, but an inflamed Achilles has prevented Taylor from playing in the past three matches. Monk hopes top have him back for a seismic game against Derby County at Elland Road a week on Friday.
Berardi, a more natural right-back, made his first start at Preston since pulling a hamstring on the opening day of the season. His comprehensive performance in Taylor’s absence is symptomatic of a squad that has compensated brilliantly and regularly for the loss of key players. Berardi spent the build up to Christmas trapped on the bench behind Taylor and Luke Ayling. Monk now has no reason to drop him.
“It’s really very nice to be back in the team,” Berardi said. “I was just waiting for my chance. Now I’ll try and do my best in each game – waiting for Chaz (Taylor) to come back!
“I’ve played a lot of games at left-back so I can play there. Of course, maybe it’s a little bit better on the right but if the gaffer says to play there then I play there. It’s not a problem. There’s a lot of competition in this position but that’s good.”
The competition at full-back has been largely generated by Luke Ayling, arguably Monk’s most astute signing of the summer. Brought in from Bristol City at a time when Berardi was injured, Ayling tied down the right-back role overnight and was part of an established back four prior to Taylor’s injury. Berardi made his comeback in October but was limited to appearances in the League Cup until Taylor limped from the field during a 1-0 win over Brentford on December 17.
Berardi had no argument with Monk’s selection of Ayling, despite the implications for him. “He needs to play because he’s doing very well,” Berardi said. “He deserves to play because the results are good and for the gaffer it’s difficult to change players.
“Of course it’s not good being on the bench but I tried to think positive and I wanted the team to be going like this. I want to try to go to the play-offs.”
Leeds are starting to scent a top-six finish after Monday’s 3-0 defeat of Rotherham. The result extended a very consistent run of form but United reached full-time with a lead of five points over seventh-placed Derby, the first time Monk’s side have had clear water between themselves and the chasing pack. Leeds will increase that margin to eight if they beat Steve McClaren’s Derby next week.
The club, meanwhile, are seven points behind Newcastle United in second, the division’s last automatic promotion place, but Berardi said his focus was solely on the play-offs.
“For now we think about the play-offs because the table is very close between six or seven teams,” he said. “The first two are a lot of points in front of us. But we can do much better than we are doing I think.
“The target is to win every game because there are a lot of teams behind us and a lot of teams in front of us. It’ll be hard to stay in this position but if we play like we have been then we can do it.”
It took 45 minutes for Leeds to find their form on Monday, helped by a half-time change of formation by Monk. An unfamiliar 4-1-3-2 system employed at the start of the match gave Rotherham space to work with in front of Monk’s defence but the opening goal from Kyle Bartley two minutes into the second half sapped the confidence of a team trapped at the bottom of the table.
“The first half was a little bit close for us but we tried too much to play long balls,” Berardi said. “In the second half we played much better.
“It was a very big three points and we deserved to win – maybe not in the first half but in the second. I tried to score and it was close. Maybe next time.”
United’s season breaks now for the FA Cup’s third round and a tie away at Shaun Derry’s Cambridge United next Monday. Monk is expected to make changes for that fixture, in part because of the close proximity of the game against Derby which falls just four days later.
“Now we have a few days off and we can prepare for the cup,” Berardi said. “It’s maybe a good chance for some other players to show something to the gaffer. We have to win and then look to get a good game in the next round – any club in the Premier League. It’s all the same.”