A stoppage-time equaliser spared Leeds’ blushes at Cardiff, but all Jesse Marsch’s seven changes have brought about for his team is an awkward replay.
There was history here. On January 6, 2002, Leeds United arrived at Ninian Park at the top of the Premier League, but they left on the end of a 2-1 defeat on an afternoon dominated by significant crowd disturbances, including referee Andy D’Urso being struck by a missile thrown from the crowd. Following this loss, they failed to win any of their next seven league matches and finished the season in fifth place in the table, missing out on a Champions League place by five points from Newcastle United. They’d reached the semi-finals of that competition the previous campaign.
Few realised at the time what the long-term ramifications of this would be. Leeds’ footballing strength was built on financial sand, and Champions League qualification was pretty much essential if the debts accumulated by chairman Peter Ridsdale were to have any chance of being maintained.
Leeds finished the following season in 15th place and were relegated from the Premier League in 2004. Following a spell in administration and three years in League One it took them until 2021 to get back, a cycle which might just have started on that unpleasant afternoon at Ninian Park more than two decades ago.
Much has changed in the intervening years. Ninian Park has been replaced by The Cardiff City Stadium and City sampled two separate seasons in the Premier League before settling in the Championship. Leeds went on their grand rollercoaster journey before ending up there on what they hope is a long-term basis. And both clubs might have been forgiven, considering their parlous league positions, to consider this tie of lesser importance: neither had won since November 5, Leeds are 14th and Cardiff are 20th, and both are just two points above their respective relegation zones.
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch clearly valued the benefits of giving many players a rest over picking up any momentum, making seven changes from the team which held West Ham to a draw. And it showed. Leeds dominated early possession but were unable to create much of note, and after 20 minutes, after a failure to clear, Jadon Philogene scored. Seven minutes later Cardiff had another, when Sheyi Ojo hooked the ball past reserve goalkeeper Joel Robles.
Prior to this match, Cardiff had scored once in their last four games. With 10 minutes of the first half to play against Leeds United, they were 2-0 up. ‘Leeds are falling apart again,’ sang the jubilant Cardiff supporters.
Changes came on the hour, because they had to at some point. Leeds appeared as lifeless in the first 15 minutes of the second half as they had throughout most of the first, and the introduction of Rodrigo, Cody Drameh and Max Wober were acknowledgment that all this talk of the advantages or otherwise of resting players for cup matches is something that takes place in the abstract. In the here and present of a cup match in the pouring rain against taunting opponents from home supporters delighting in your discomfort, it starts to feel a little more like something needs to be done.
Five minutes later, Leeds had a route back into the game: a Rodrigo header from a short corner routine. The tables were turning. Familiar insecurities which have dogged Cardiff’s season were now visible in the whites of their eyes. Leeds’ attacking waves became increasingly regular, even if they weren’t creating much with them.
When opportunities did present themselves, they snatched at them, no more so than when Joel Bagan’s dive across the goal saved a low Junior Firpo shot destined for the bottom corner.
It was the sort of handball seen fairly regularly in the days before deliberate handball on the goal-line became an automatic red card in 1982, a full dive coupled with a half-hearted attempt to make it look as though he’d played it with its head. His departure from the pitch was, unusually for a red card at a critical point in a cup match, greeted with a warm round of applause, consolation for having thrown himself on the grenade in that way.
He will have reckoned that he won that gamble when Jak Alnwick dived to save Rodrigo’s poor penalty kick. ‘Leeds are falling apart again,’ sang the jubilant Cardiff supporters once more.
With 10 minutes to play Leeds pressed on. Mateo Joseph blazed the ball over from six yards after Rodrigo pulled it back for him. Through five minutes, against an increasingly frantic soundtrack, Leeds started to launch the ball more directly towards the Cardiff goal. And three minutes into stoppage-time they were rescued, a backheel inside the penalty area from Firpo and Sonny Perkins, who’d only been on the pitch for a few minutes, flicking the ball over the line from close range as the Cardiff defence dawdled.
‘Leeds are falling apart again,’ sang the jubilant Leeds supporters this time.
And the upshot of all this is that they have to go back at it next week. Is this what Marsch envisaged when he dropped seven players for a bit of a rest? Because if it was, it seems to have backfired a little. Leeds supporters will be happy enough with the late equaliser. Prior to this match, they hadn’t even been in the draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup in six years. But when a manager rests a number of players and is rewarded with a replay, it becomes difficult to believe that the football Gods aren’t having a little bit of a joke at their expense.
A few minutes later came the draw for that next round, which sent the winners of this replay to the winners of the replay between Boreham Wood or Accrington Stanley. It’s tempting to think that Cardiff’s moment in this tie might have come and gone, but Leeds’ record in the FA Cup doesn’t quite make that a done deal just yet. They live to fight another day in the FA Cup, and that’s more that can be said otherwise for their record in this competition in recent years. Cardiff will remain in the back of their minds for now, though.
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