This was a night of near misses. Leeds nearly won twice. We nearly let Chris Wood and Charlie Taylor have the last laugh. We nearly saw Gaetano Berardi take a penalty.
In the end Leeds won, so je ne regrette rien, apart from the last one — maybe one day. This game wasn’t a classic, and drawing it out beyond 130 minutes (there were about eight minutes of stoppage time before extra-time even began) wasn’t desirable. In Suffolk, as Leeds’ players tired, Mick McCarthy went back to the booze cabinet, for a glass of the really good stuff this time. But the game was good, and the result more intoxicating than anything Mick has in his locker.
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What will be will be when Ipswich come to Elland Road, but this match was about Leeds United, and about responding somehow to the defeat at Millwall. Burnley away in the Carabao Cup was about the worst chance for that response. This competition has Wembley at the end of it, not to mention a chance to qualify for the Europa League, but the early rounds are a slog of not-quite reserve teams sent out by reluctant managers, unsure how much bother they should go through when those prizes, Wembley and Europe, are so distant on these autumnal Tuesday nights.
Even worse, for Leeds, were the distracting old faces in the Burnley squad. Chris Wood might have started this game, but was a substitute in the previous round because he was too new to the side, and was a substitute in this one because he’s scored in the Premier League now and this sort of Carabao business is beneath him.
Charlie Taylor did start, and was soon getting booed up a storm. He was up against Berardi on the wing, conjuring visions of ambulances on the pitch, screens around a stricken Taylor. The thing is, Tano is a nice, quiet guy off the pitch, who is friends with everybody. On the pitch? Berardi’s growing out his spider-legs fringe like a young Robert Smith from The Cure, brooding as handsomely behind it; perhaps soon he’ll take to the pitch in eyeliner to complete an intimidating essay in Swiss-Italian goth. On twenty minutes, Berardi went through Taylor with a quality sliding tackle that hit hard and got the ball and sent a message and lifted the away crowd and took the bins out and made sure there’s plenty of milk. It did everything.
Chris Wood, meanwhile, was booed as he warmed up in front of the away fans. Pablo Hernandez, warming up next to Wood, offered him some sympathy, or perhaps just told him this was nothing compared to facing Charlie in the jungle. Back on the pitch, Jay-Roy Grot was next to have a go at Charlie Taylor, sending him sliding to the feet of Sean Dyche; then Roofe fouled him and got a talking to from the ref, who seemed to be enjoying long chats about life and love with each of the players in turn.
Kicking Charlie was fun, but more pressing was the performance of his potential, if potentially temporary, replacement in our side. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, his name printed on his shirt like the entrance arch to an exhibition of Victorian steam engines, was giving the ball away in attack and giving sleepy fouls away in defence; after Luke Ayling made one hard-won clearance under pressure, he must have watched in despair as instead of getting the ball to safety Borthwick-Jackson kicked the player behind him that he didn’t even realise was there, giving Burnley a free-kick as dangerous as a corner. The referee took it as a chance to come over and get to know CBJ better, and maybe see if he could help him understand why he was playing so badly.
Borthwick-Jackson was the only bum note on a night when Leeds put their collective arses into a strong team performance. The first half was even, and Leeds had good chances, the best when Mateusz Klich changed defence into counter-attack and fed Grot, who turned into a great position to score but prodded the ball gently to the keeper. We were not being overrun, as at Millwall; Burnley were playing a much more normal, less destructive game, leaving Leeds plenty of room to patiently pass in midfield the way they only managed once or twice at The Den. They just couldn’t create much.
Unlike when Kalvin Phillips plays and gets forward to play next to the striker, hunting for goals, Klich and Ronaldo Vieira were side by side as a pair in front of the back four, a reflection of many factors: a lack of first choice defenders behind them, acknowledgement of the opponents’ Premier League status, or perhaps Christiansen doesn’t see either player as suitable for attacking too much, hence Phillips’ security in the first eleven next to Eunan O’Kane.
Also, Burnley were dangerous, so the emphasis had to be on defence. Leeds started giving away free kicks towards the half hour, to the point that the referee had a chat about it all with Ayling. Eventually a yellow card came Grot’s way, for kicking Taylor again near the halfway line, which was fine by everybody.
Taylor and Gudmundsson were getting the best balls in, but nothing that would have bothered Pontus or Cooper had they been playing; as it was, Ayling and Conor Shaughnessy were doing just fine. After half an hour the best chance had been Grot’s, but we hadn’t seen much of him since. When Klich stopped a Gudmundsson break through the middle Leeds didn’t look alert from the free kick, as the ball was moved wide and Barnes got his head on a Taylor cross. Later, Gudmundsson’s free kick was headed just wide by Kevin Long. A through ball put Vokes into the penalty area, and Arfield missed under pressure from Berardi, that he hadn’t applied earlier to Long. A curving cross from Bardsley was headed past the far post by Barnes. For three full-backs and a young midfielder, United’s defence was standing well.
Leeds’ best outlet was breakaways via Pawel Cibicki, a fragile little thing who looks like an awkward pre-fame photo of a teenage Avril Lavigne, and gets fouled a lot, giving Leeds the chance to slow the game down and try their luck from a set-piece.
The second half risked becoming an aimless meander, neither side sure whether to go all out for Carabao glory, or conserve their energy. Then Gudmundsson got away from Borthwick-Jackson and shot just wide, encouraging a change to Leeds’ eleven: Hadi Sacko replaced Borthwick-Jackson. Sacko went to play in front of Berardi, Dallas behind Roofe, and Sacko soon offered a run and a cross that didn’t find anybody and it was like he’d never been away. A similar spell out of sight is probably going to be Borthwick-Jackson’s now.
If he comes back as strongly as Sacko it’ll be a good thing. Taylor didn’t like Sacko. He tried to stop one run down the wing with an old mates’ hug, but Sacko wasn’t having it, running between Taylor and Arfield into the box, where inevitably his control let him down. But this was what Sacko had stopped doing at the start of the season, when fear of his own final ball seemed to have ripped the fun from the rest of his game. The key with Sacko is not to get too hung up on his lack of precision, but to appreciate the chaos he can cause.
A couple of minutes later Bardsley shot across Lonergan and nearly scored, so Dyche brought Chris Wood on, assuming he might get a toe on something like that. Wood had the ball soon enough, holding it in attack and passing to Robbie Brady, so he could batter a shot over the bar. Brady was Burnley’s other fresh substitute, and the game was now falling upon the heads, legs and torsos of our tired but sturdy defenders, not to mention our second debutant goalkeeper, who made a good save from Westwood, among others.
So Hernandez was brought on in place of Cibicki. Straight away he got the ball deep in his own half, took a look around, and passed it along the ground over about fifty yards to put Sacko on the edge of the penalty area, where Charlie Taylor should have been but wasn’t. Sacko took the ball inside the penalty area, and you might think you know how this ends, but no. Goal. A goal. Goal Sacko. Sacko scored. A goal!
If Sacko had missed then Hernandez might have thrown him in the river, but then again, the pass that broke Burnley, a work of visionary midfield art that would be beyond most earthly footballers, was played by Pablo Picasso as if he was nonchalantly kicking a ball out onto the field for the start of training. He could have had a bag of balls there with him and passed them all the same way if he had to, but happily Sacko only needed one.
As Burnley pressed for an equaliser, an interception from Klich and a pass forward by Vieira — not quite as lovely as Pablo’s — put Sacko up against three Burnley defenders through the middle. Kevin Long hauled him down and was booked; Pierre-Michel Lasogga was brought on for Grot, to see how Burnley fancied dragging him down instead.
Instead Berardi dragged Long’s shirt in the penalty area from a corner and Wood equalised from the penalty spot and he threatened to drain all the fun from the game, the big plank-faced bastard. If the Carabao Cup was already inconvenient, a 1-1 draw was inconsiderate. Perhaps, to satisfy everybody’s obsession with concentrating on the league and to generate more excitement, Carabao games should be settled on a first goal wins basis.
The referee at least seemed to want the game done in normal time, and found six minutes of stoppage time to give either side a chance to win it and end it. After three minutes of it, Tarkowski dragged Roofe’s shirt in the penalty area as he waited for a cross from Hernandez, and Leeds were ready to call it a night. Hernandez put the ball down for the penalty, and Burnley’s goalkeeper Nick Pope looked him in the eyes, and will never recover.
Much as I will never recover from Robbie Brady shooting a free-kick into the the top corner seven minutes into stoppage time, sending this thing further on into the night, where nobody at the outset had wanted it to go. Now, though, there was no reason to stop when what was already a good game had shown itself ready to get weird. Another half an hour like the last twenty minutes would have been like an intravenous shot of Carabao, and then, who needs sleep?
The first half was a tale of Berardi heading crosses away before Burnley could score, until he got a whack in the cheek from Tarkowski and left the field for treatment, bleeding, shouting, angry, Berardi. He came back on still doing all of that except the bleeding. Over the course of the match, Berardi had won tackles, given away fouls, clattered Taylor, given away the penalty for the first equaliser, defended the last line in extra time, and had his face cut open. He’s not Cristiano Ronaldo, but where Ronaldo looks and plays like a perfect alien mannequin, Berardi plays with a gloriously relatable humanity that reflects what he is: a glorious human.
Roofe went off so Ezgjan Alioski could come on, as an extra special extra-time fourth sub. Be still my beating Carabao. The second half was a procession that we just had to get through until the possibility of, and I could sense it coming, Berardi scoring a penalty in the shootout. Along the way Lasogga was fouled and Berardi had a look at the lie of the ball, but left it to Lasogga to shoot over the bar. Lonergan sort of punched a corner away, saved well from Cork, Lasogga and Hernandez tried to get the ball moving in attack, and Hernandez shot just over the bar in the final minute.
Then penalties, and the ABBA format, to make things even more four-subs and a bucket of Carabao. Why, in this era of innovation, we couldn’t just let Berardi take all our pens is beyond me. What the police had to do with deciding at which end the penalties should be taken is also beyond me. But as a metaphor for what’s great about Leeds United at the moment, the shoot-out delighted me.
Berardi didn’t take one, for shame. If he had, I’m sure it would have had the quality of all Leeds’ others, because every single player stepped up and didn’t just score, but did it with confidence and style. Lasogga, with a short run up, blasted the ball across Pope into the bottom corner. Hernandez only had to look at Pope and the keeper knew he was beaten. Klich played it cool, rolling the ball slowly into the same corner Pablo had put it, knowing that ABBA hadn’t given Pope time to recover from staring into the abyss.
Burnley were scoring all theirs, including one boring effort from Wood. Still didn’t score that one against Doncaster, did you? That you always forget to mention when you’re acting all mystified about why you weren’t constantly fellated just for existing when you arrived at Leeds. Then Tarkovski was the boy: he looked nervous, telegraphed his intentions, and Lonergan saved low to his right.
The next two penalties were Leeds’ chance to take the tie. If Klich gets points for cool, Alioski gets them for emphasis; left footed, he whacked the ball like a tee-shot into the top corner. It gave Stuart Dallas something to emulate for the winner: right footed, he whacked the ball into the other top corner.
And it had all been worth it, after all, if only for the photos of the players celebrating at the end. Like against Norwich City in the same competition last year, there was something good for the soul in seeing this group of players, many of them not guaranteed first team starters, delighted with their work and happy to be moving the club forward, past considerable opposition: not just a Premier League team, but the weight of the defeat at Millwall, now lifted, and the weight of expectation that is on all Leeds players. A weight that’s as light as a feather at the end of a game like this. ◉
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(feature image by Paul Kent)