Path to the Premier League narrows for Leeds United fringe after failure to grasp Carabao Cup opportunity - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Every game is an opportunity, said Ian Poveda ahead of a Leeds United Carabao Cup defeat from which he was one of very few fringe players to emerge with any credit.
PENALTY PAIN - Leeds United went out of the Carabao Cup on spot-kicks against League One Hull City. Pic: Tony JohnsonPENALTY PAIN - Leeds United went out of the Carabao Cup on spot-kicks against League One Hull City. Pic: Tony Johnson
PENALTY PAIN - Leeds United went out of the Carabao Cup on spot-kicks against League One Hull City. Pic: Tony Johnson

A completely changed Whites side struggled to shine collectively and individually, yet showed character at least to find a scarcely-deserved, injury-time leveller to take a 1-1 game to penalties. Hull held their nerve in a lengthy spot-kick contest to win 9-8, Jamie Shackleton’s miss allowing Alfie Jones to put the visitors through to round three.

The Carabao Cup presented match minutes for players who are unlikely to start Premier League games in the immediate future for Marcelo Bielsa and a cup run would have been beneficial for the head coach and his squad. But a failure to cope with the dominant forward play of Mallik Wilks and a lack of cohesion going forward made the game an uphill struggle from the off and left unanswered questions over players who will be expected to step up in the event of injuries to Bielsa's regulars.

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In a starting line-up with several talking points, Kiko Casilla took the headlines and the captain’s armband - a surprise choice for many, the wrong choice for some.

Casilla sat out the Championship game against the Tigers in February, serving the first game of an eight-game suspension for a charge of racism. There are Leeds fans for whom the events of last season are impossible to stomach and they simply do not want to see Casilla play for their club. There are Leeds fans for whom his high-profile errors make him persona non grata.

It took just four minutes of the cup tie for the keeper, who went on to make some big stops, saved a penalty and scored one, to fuel his critics' fire. His poor pass led to Hull's opener, Barry Douglas sold short, the ball picked off and worked expertly to the middle with little or no defensive pressure from Leeds. Wilks fired home via a deflection and Hull led from that moment to the 94th minute.

There began the Wilks show and a pattern of play that allowed Hull to have far more control of the match than anyone could have anticipated before kick-off, even with 11 changes and the presence of so many youngsters in Leeds' line-up.

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Direct play and aerial balls invited him to bully the young centre-half pairing of Leif Davis and Charlie Cresswell, with defensive midfielder Oliver Casey dragged into the battle too with little success. Little nudges, stubborn hold-up play and clever touches made Wilks the platform for Hull to build attacks and prevent the home side from finding their rhythm. Keane Lewis-Potter impressed too, for the Tigers and George Honeyman buzzed around effectively.

Main man WIlks was doing far more than just bullying defenders, he was threatening to add to the scoreline at regular intervals and bringing others into play, bouncing and rolling off challenges to turn and stride forward, Casilla having to keep out one low effort that briefly looked goalbound.

Leeds themselves fashioned chances to hit back, Cresswell whiskers away from a debut goal as he craned in vain to connect with a Douglas corner but they were less than convincing.

Gjanni Alioski’s frustrating first half culminated in a yellow card for a late trip, after offside calls and free-kicks went against him and he blazed a great chance over the bar.

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He wasn’t the only Leeds man looking exasperated as they trooped off at the break, Rodrigo’s first 45 minutes of competitive football at Elland Road was unremarkable barring one nice dummy.

Bielsa’s introduction of Pascal Struijk at the break gave Leeds a lot more presence in front of their defence, both on and off the ball, although Wilks continued to plough a merry furrow when and wherever he pleased, initially.

Leeds did grow into the game, bit by bit and inched the play forward into the Hull half, although still failed to cut the visitors’ open when they got to the final third. With Tyler Roberts failing to get into the game, Rodrigo dropped deeper to try and get involved in the play and showed some of his skill in flicks and tricks in areas where no damage could be done to the League One side.

There were spells when the game threatened to open up and that seemed to suit Leeds. Poveda got the bit between his teeth and ran at defenders down the right, albeit without an end product.

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And while Hull found time on the ball harder to come by and found themselves sitting deeper, they were organised enough to stop Leeds from making anything of their possession.

Wilks departed, having tired, and Hull looked less dangerous. Leeds had more in their legs but themselves presented little in the way of danger.

As frustrating as it was to watch, what will have satisfied Bielsa was the effort of his players and the fact that they kept going.

Robbie Gotts, on as a substitute, fired in their first shot on target in the 89th minute and, with Hull seconds from victory, a goal suddenly arrived.

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Douglas dug out a cross from the left, right on the byline, Cresswell headed back into the middle and, although Rodrigo couldn’t make contact, Alioski did, finding the top corner to prolong the evening. The late leveller was a sickener for Hull but they got what they deserved when it went to penalties.

There were some lovely efforts, notably from Douglas whose night was largely forgettable overall, and goalkeeper Casilla, who also saved from ex-Whites man Lewis Coyle.

But when Shackleton’s strike was kept out, Jones made himself a hero and sent Leeds out of the Carabao Cup.

Murderball, Under 23s games and the EFL Trophy will still give players a chance to impress Bielsa and conclusions cannot be drawn after one game but one avenue for competitive football has been closed off until next season. The path to the Premier League just got a little narrower for those on the fringe.