Liam Cooper keeping firmly grounded but insists Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United have extra gears
LIAM COOPER will not bring himself to contemplate how captaining Leeds United in promotion the Premier League would feel.
After all, eight months ago Cooper and his Whites looked certain to be there already and the episode of April's slip from second to third place followed by heartache in the play-offs is naturally etched in the defender’s memory.
It leaves Cooper knowing that even United’s current buffer in the Championship’s automatic promotion spots could ultimately count for nothing.
But not if Leeds United’s determined captain has his way with the defender warning that even with a 10-point gap to third, his Whites still have “gears” to go through under second season boss Marcelo Bielsa.
Cooper will return from a three-game absence with a calf strain for tomorrow’s clash at a Fulham side who are rated one of the biggest threats to leaders West Brom and second-placed Leeds in the division’s automatic promotion spots.
Three defeats on the spin have sent Scott Parker’s Cottagers down to sixth and 12 points behind the Whites but Cooper says the class of a Fulham outfit who were in the Premier League last season cannot be doubted.
Should Cooper indeed make his return to the Whites side this weekend, the 28-year-old will have to deal with the Championship’s top scorer in 16-goal Serbian international striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Cooper says Leeds have a plan in place to keep the six-foot-two forward quiet with United’s captain relishing the prospect of tomorrow’s clash.
Rather like the defender is also excited about the second half of the campaign in general with Cooper staying cautious after last season but insisting that Bielsa’s Whites still have plenty more improvement to come.
Reflecting on what Leeds had done so far this season as the Championship reaches its half way stage, Cooper told the YEP: “In all honesty, I still think we have got gears to go through.
“We have still got a lot of improvement to do as a team and as a squad and we strive every day.
“We come in every day, we work hard we pull each other through and that’s the way it’s got to be.
“We are a great group, a hard working group and we just want to be successful.
“We all know the festive period is massive. Obviously we have got that 10-point gap to third but I reiterate that it’s nothing.
“We have been here before and we all know how that ended up last year so we have just got to keep doing what we do and keep working hard.
“What’s going on behind us is out of our control, we are in control of our own destiny and we will look to just keep improving, keep picking up the wins and keep working hard.”
Despite Cooper missing a third game in a row, United looked destined to clock up an eighth league win in succession in last weekend’s hosting of Cardiff City in which the Whites stormed into a 3-0 lead.
The Bluebirds were fortunate to only be 3-0 down such was United’s blitz with Bielsa admitting his men were playing some of the best football of his tenure in the first hour.
But three goals leaked in the final 30 minutes saw United’s winning run ended as Leeds conceded for the first time in 445 minutes of football and went from 10 goals against for the season to 13.
Centre-back Cooper’s return to fitness could not be more timely as United now await the division’s deadliest marksman in Mitrovic who has netted a staggering 24 goals this season for club and country.
Cooper has huge respect for the 25-year-old but plans are in place to keep the Fulham marksman quiet and then turn on the style at the other end. “We work every day on ourselves and we know what we need to do to nullify Mitrovic,” said Cooper.
“He’s an unbelievable player, he plays for his country, he’s proven at the level and he scores goals at this level and I think we have got to do everything we can to nullify his attributes and then concentrate on us and how we are going to hurt them.
“We know we have got the players in our team if we have 11, 12, 13 players at 100 per cent then we will beat anyone in this league and that’s the confidence we take from our work.
“We know the work we do every day and it leaves us in good stead going into the games.”
Twenty four games will now decide United’s destiny in a bid to go one place better than last year and the Whites are still no bigger than 1-9 to finish in the top two, even after last weekend’s slip against Cardiff.
In his sixth season with the Whites, Cooper could be on the verge of greatness as the captain to finally take the Whites up but the centre-back is staying completely grounded and will not even dare to dream of the subsequent emotions.
“I don’t even want to think about that,” said Cooper, asked about the prospect of being the man with the armband and taking Leeds up.
"The next game is the biggest, we go to Fulham on Saturday hungry for another three points and that’s the way it is.
"I don’t want to talk about what it would mean to me and stuff, we have got a job in hand on Saturday and then we will go to the next one.
"But the most important game of the season at the minute is the next one and that’s what we are looking to.”