For so long Leeds seemed to hold Watford at arms’ reach, but in the end it was not Premier League quality that told but a weakness in the Whites’ own defence.
Scott Wootton has become something of a lightning rod for criticism in recent months, after a spell playing at right-back despite being far more comfortable in the centre. His mistake cost Leeds the tie, the defender knocking the ball into the back of his own net from a cross.
The result could have been very different if it were not for Leeds’ own issues in front of goal. The final third offered up an insurmountable challenge, the team unable to turn periods of extended pressure into chances of any real note.
It would have been easy to question Quique Sanchez Flores’ pre-match talk about respecting the FA Cup and his subsequent six changes, but he still called upon eight internationals. Leeds had two capped players of their own in the 11 after the Ivory Coast’s Sol Bamba replaced the injured Liam Cooper, the only change from the 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough.
Steve Evans believes Troy Deeney should be added to Watford’s roster of international stars at Euro 2016. He showed why with barely two minutes on the clock, beating Scott Wootton to the ball in the air and only missing the target with the aid of a deflection.
Leeds were in no way being overwhelmed by their Premier League opposition, but repeatedly allowed free headers in the area from a succession of corner kicks. Miguel Britos should have done far better just before 15 minute mark, sending his effort well wide of Marco Silvestri’s net.
It was a sign of things to come. Watford began to turn the screw. Only a series of air shots stopped the Hornets from taking the lead after Silvestri came and punched very badly from a cross into the area.
The exertion suddenly seemed to take something out of Watford, the game settling down toward the half hour mark. Leeds enjoyed more of the ball but struggled to find the last bit of quality required to break down the home defence. Stuart Dallas twice found himself in unenviable positions, forced to shoot by poor final passes when the angle or range was against him.
Little changed as the half came to a close. The final minute saw Dallas come in from the right only to see his shot deflected out for a corner. Had it not been for the timely deflection, the Northern Ireland international could have been in a dangerous position.
The second-half began again with Deeney threatening. He danced but eventually the Leeds defence answered, just about scrambling away his shot for a corner. Watford were soon reminded that they were in a game, Leeds breaking up the pitch before nearly capitalising, first through a dangerous Charlie Taylor cross and then Dallas offering up one of his own.
Leeds were ultimately their own undoing. A whipped cross from Ben Watson should have been claimed by Silvestri, but the Italian goalkeeper left it. Wootton tried to clear at the back post but instead hit it with his shin it into the bottom corner of his own net. Deeney, lurking, would have been proud of the finish himself.
Almen Abdi was then allowed the freedom of the pitch to charge at the Leeds defence, firing an effort over the bar. Moments later Etienne Capoue put the ball into the back of the net only to see his effort disallowed for a Troy Deeney foul in the build-up.
Leeds struggled to recover. Twice Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney were played through and twice Leeds were only rescued by the ball being caught under feet at the wrong moment.
In the end, Leeds found it impossible to break down Watford’s back-line, probably best summed up by Giuseppe Bellusci’s decision to have a shot from 40 yards. As the ball trickled out for a goal kick, Leeds’s cup dream came to an end.
“He (Wootton) was distraught on the pitch and he was standing by the door shaking hands and apologising to every player and member of staff,” Leeds manager Steve Evans said.
“There is nothing that anyone can say to Scott Wootton that will make that kid sleep for a day or two, so I really feel for him.
“If he gets that 100 times, he deals with it 99. It is a mistake, an error and no player in the world goes to do that, but I don’t think you need a shout there. He should deal with it. It’s a particularly cruel way to go out.”