Revitalised Leeds march on in cup

Michael Tonge strikes the opening goal.
Michael Tonge strikes the opening goal.
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A crowd of 17,000 came to Elland Road last night and Southampton’s team showed no fewer than 11 changes. At face value, at least one of those facts damns the Capital One Cup as a competition which doesn’t matter.

All that can be said is that it matters to Leeds United, and more than it did Southampton or before the tournament began in the second week of August.

In beating another Premier League side, Leeds advanced to the last eight for the second time in 20 years and the first since 1996, the year in which they reached the final.

Progression like that is no mean feat in this part of the world.

Much is made of Neil Warnock’s mediocre achievements in the League Cup but he is managing a club with a record to match. Countless players, and many of much higher stock, have come through the doors at Elland Road without making any impression on England’s second cup tournament.

Suddenly, Leeds are showing signs of knock-out pedigree.

Their defeat of Southampton was as comprehensive as their rousing win over Everton in the third round last month but achieved with half the difficulty and a fraction of the tension.

Everton flickered towards the end of their visit to Elland Road but Southampton had no sting in their tail. They looked primed for a beating long before Michael Tonge scored the game’s first goal in the 35th minute.

The midfielder found an exposed if not quite empty net with a shot from the edge of the box, ending a period of close examination which had worn Southampton down.

The visitors’ defeat – confirmed by El-Hadji Diouf’s 88th-minute tap-in and an injury-time penalty from Luciano Becchio – was a product of both their own attitude in resting key players and a display from Leeds which the club could do with translating into the Championship.

Twice in the space of five weeks, their performances of note have come in the League Cup.

In all, the club’s contribution to the tournament this season has given credence to Warnock’s claim that his side might do what Championship team have done before and threaten to walk off with the silverware. Cardiff City came within a penalty shoot-out of drinking from the trophy earlier this year and United will discover who stands in their way when the quarter-final draw takes place this evening.

It is a long time since United took a vested interest in that.

Southampton’s approach last night was either sensible or reckless depending on your point of view. Beaten by Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday and making heavy weather of the Premier League, their manager, Nigel Adkins, nailed his colours to one mast and named an entirely different team at Elland Road.

His side had the feel of a strong Championship line-up – strong enough on a good day to breach the fourth round – but the collection of junior players on Southampton’s bench left Adkins prone to criticism and prone to defeat. Both were inevitable from the earliest stages.

A month earlier, Everton paid for a weakened side at Elland Road with their place in the League Cup and Southampton did likewise, taking their leave of the competition with very little protest. What good a lame defeat will do their already challenging season is hard to say. Leeds in contrast will feel better for a fluid performance and a fine result.

Southampton were behind by half-time and would have been in trouble far earlier had Luke Varney not brightened up a meandering game with an entry for miss of the season after 15 minutes.

The English leagues will do well to produce a clearer candidate before May.

The winger, who returned to Warnock’s line-up after a short bout of illness, slid in to meet Diouf’s header across goal after Aidan White hooked a cross to the far post.

Kelvin Davis, the goalkeeper whose reflexes earned Southampton a besieged win in Leeds last season, was committed and prostrate when Varney contrived to slide the ball wide from a range of a yard. The finish defied physics and Varney did not know where to look.

His opportunity stemmed from pressure placed on the left side of Adkins’ defence, an obvious point of weakness throughout the game. Southampton’s left-back,

Ben Reeves, lost his bearings and possession repeatedly as White and Sam Byram took turns at attacking him. They were able to do so almost at will.

One cross from Byram dropped nicely to Tonge who glanced a header beyond Davis’ net, and a foul by Guly Do Prado on Byram amid further pressure out wide was the catalyst for Varney’s astonishing miss. Southampton would have been happy to go so close in a first half when they created nothing.

Varney was more unlucky three minutes before the half-hour when he ran onto Byram’s pass and curled an 18-yard shot around Davies and beyond the post, and he suffered maddening misfortune during another moment of bizarre football 60 seconds later.

Dan Seaborne sold Davis short with an anxious backpass and Varney was first to the ball, lobbing the keeper with a sliced finished which clattered the frame of the goal and bounced to safety with the help of a flick off Do Prado’s head.

Varney sat on the ground with a look of bemusement but the state of the game was encouraging for Warnock.

His midfield had pressed with aggression and purpose and Southampton looked increasingly fragile on both flanks.

Rodolph Austin should have done better with a 33rd-minute delivery from Byram than scuff a header off target but United were no more than a sharp finish away from the opening goal.

It came two minutes later after Varney – a vibrant presence in Warnock’s side, despite his unflattering error – broke to the byline and forced a half-hit clearance which Tonge stroked into the net. In that moment, Warnock and Adkins reaped what their teams had sown for the more than half-an-hour.

With few obvious options available among his substitutes, Adkins was subjected to more of the same as the second half unfolded.

Tonge and Austin saw goalbound shots blocked by a deep defence and Davis threw his body by an attempted lob from Varney. There was no response to speak of until the final 20 minutes.

Emmanuel Mayuka had the clearest chance to equalise after arriving beneath Jason Pearce’s mishit clearance but his collection of the ball was ponderous and his attempt at a volley wild.

Nothing more came of a spate of late attacks.

It was desperate stuff from a side who proved a plum draw in a beatable sense, and Diouf put them to the sword when Austin sprinted over 50 yards and forced Davis to palm the ball into his six-yard box. Moments later, Seaborne fouled Tonge and Becchio dispatched the resulting penalty, safe in the knowledge that the night was won.

Few will look for these durable campaigners when the draw begins tonight.

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