Liverpool versus Leeds United is “one of the purists”, according to Kyle Bartley. It is certainly a fixture Leeds United have missed. Tonight’s League Cup quarter-final at Anfield is, Bartley hopes, a “little taste” of what will become the Yorkshire club’s bread and butter again.
Leeds and Liverpool have contested exactly 100 league matches but the last time they met in the same division, the last time United played at Anfield, James Milner was still wearing white. “If we’re being honest the club have stood still for quite a number of years now,” Bartley said. “Hopefully we can show tonight that we do belong in the top flight.”
Leeds feel closer to the Premier League than they have for some time – fifth in the Championship after Saturday’s nervy win at Rotherham United – but Garry Monk’s squad will suspend all thoughts of the play-offs this evening. Aston Villa come to Elland Road for an important league game this Saturday but Bartley, the on-loan Swansea centre-back, sees no point in prioritising one fixture over the other. Liverpool is “just another game”, he said, but a game and a chance deserving of United’s full attention.
“I’ve heard the manager say a few times – and I think he’s spot on – that the biggest game is always your next game,” Bartley said. “Our biggest game is this one. Once it’s done, and no matter the result, our biggest game is Saturday and Villa at home.
“This a little taste of what everyone at the club wants to be a weekly fixture but it’s important we don’t get carried away. It’s a historical fixture in the English league but for us it’s just another game. The manager stresses that all the time. I’m sure there’ll be a few butterflies for some of the lads but once you get on the pitch it’s 11 players v 11 players. We’ll have our game-plan, they’ll have theirs. We’ll see who comes out on top.”
Liverpool’s game plan under Jurgen Klopp is strictly defined: quick, attacking football allied with relentless pressing off the ball. Those tactics are keeping Liverpool at the top end of the Premier League.
Neither Monk nor Bartley can be sure of Klopp’s line-up this evening but Bartley is not counting on any weakness in Liverpool’s team.
“We’re away at Anfield so it’s going to be a massive game no matter what,” he said. “Whoever comes in will have quality.
“Jurgen Klopp’s style is high pressing and high intensity. It’s working out well for them this season. But that’s something we’ve looked to do as well so we might try and match them. We know at times we’ll be under the cosh. They keep the ball really well but that’s something we have to manage. Although it’s a difficult ground, anyone can go there and get a result. You’ve just got to be confident. If you look at the cup in previous years there have been upsets all over. We go there 100 per cent believing in ourselves.”
Leeds’ struggle to kill off a 10-man Rotherham side on Saturday begged the question of whether Monk’s players had one eye on the trip to Anfield but Bartley denied that the Liverpool tie had tempted United to take their eye off the ball.
“I don’t think anyone did that,” Bartley said. “The three points were massive after a disappointing result against Newcastle. We had to focus on the league. That’s our main objective. But fifth position in the league, the quarter-finals of the League Cup – it’s going well.”
Victory at Anfield would launch Leeds into a two-legged semi-final, beginning at the end of January. “If we get a good result then we’re only a few games away,” said Bartley, a member of the Swansea squad who won the tournament in 2013.
“Every player want to play at Anfield but every player wants to play in every game. The manager will have a difficult decision to make but he’s got a difficult decision every week. The whole squad will go there and if we win it’s the whole squad that wins.”
Bartley, at 25, is an older head in a fairly youthful squad constructed by Monk. For all that he expects “butterflies” tonight, he is not concerned about Leeds freezing. “I don’t think anyone will be too worried about the match,” he said. “The beauty of youth is they’ll just try and enjoy it.
“I’m quite strange. I normally get nervous with the smaller games and for the biggest games I’m excited, looking forward to it. But we have to stress that it’s just another game. No matter if you’re nervous or excited, once you get our there you focus on your job. They’re not in bad form and we’re under no illusion that it’s going to be difficult. But we’re in great form. Confidence is high.”