Why there’s hope for Leeds in Watford face-off

Middlesbrough's Dael Fry and Leeds United's Liam Cooper battle for the ball.
Middlesbrough's Dael Fry and Leeds United's Liam Cooper battle for the ball.
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EVEN ignoring the off-field ructions that continue to dominate the news agenda, it has been a strange old season at Elland Road.

Leeds United have produced a mixed bag of performances, as is illustrated by the club occupying a place in lower mid-table for all but a couple of weeks this term.

Leeds United's Souleymane Doukara

Leeds United's Souleymane Doukara

For every disappointing result against strugglers such as Rotherham United and MK Dons, there has been a morale-lifting performance against the promotion-chasing pack in the Championship.

The home win over leaders Hull City immediately springs to mind, but there have also been entertaining draws against the likes of Burnley, Derby County and – most recently – Middlesbrough to suggest there is something about the division’s better teams that suits Leeds.

Which is why Liam Cooper, captain against Boro in Monday night’s goalless draw, believes the Yorkshire club should travel in hopeful mood this weekend to Premier League outfit Watford in the FA Cup fifth round.

“I love the Cup,” said the Hull-born 24-year-old to The Yorkshire Post.

“It is a brilliant competition. I love the tradition and you want to get as far as you can.

“We are all looking forward to taking on Watford. It is a big one for us. We will have a big following down there and we want to get them a positive result.

“I thought we played really well against Middlesbrough. They are one of the favourites to get promoted, but they came to Elland Road and we made them look ordinary. We applied ourselves properly and were the better team.

“We can take this into Saturday in the FA Cup. Confidence is high on the back of a great result.

“Plus, we have done well against the good sides and Watford are definitely a good side. They have done well this season, and they have a very good coach.

“We will have to be on top of our game, but who is to say we can’t go down there and cause an upset?”

Watford have had a fine season back in the Premier League, last Saturday’s win at Crystal Palace nudging the Hornets back up to ninth.

Safety, always the target for a newly-promoted club, looks all but assured, meaning head coach Quique Sanchez Flores is likely to select his first-choice XI in the hope of making it through to the last eight.

This would make life tough for United but, after keeping out the most expensive frontline in the Championship on Monday night, Cooper believes the Yorkshire outfit are up to the task.

“It was a good point against a very good team in Middlesbrough,” said Cooper. “I thought we applied ourselves well and were the better team throughout.

“Middlesbrough are second in the league so it is nice to get a clean sheet. They have been scoring goals for fun so that is a decent result.

“Jordan (Rhodes) is a great finisher. You have to be concentrating all the time, especially when he is in the box. As a back four, I felt we dealt with their forwards really well.

“A team like that is always going to have spells in a game, but when they did have them I thought we sat in and defended properly. We could have nicked it at the end.

“I was gutted when the ’keeper saved Souley Doukara’s header in the second half. Fair play to him, it was a great save. I thought it was in. He kept his team in it with that.

“We have done well against the sides at the top this season. For whatever reason, I don’t know. We can’t put our finger on it.

“But, now, everyone expects us to do well against the top teams. We have to apply ourselves like that every week.

“The manager told us afterwards that we had set the mark now and, hopefully, we can go and put on a good show this Saturday.”

Boro were the last of the current top six to visit Elland Road this season and only Brighton of that elite group have prevailed, in what proved to be Uwe Rosler’s final game as manager.

Cooper added: “There is a base to move forward on, not just in the Cup but also the league. We set up against Boro with three in midfield. I thought we passed the ball great and always had an option on the ball.

“The front lads were willing to run in behind, which is always good for a defender. We created the better chances and we have to try and move on from this. We have a great Cup game on Saturday and we are really looking forward to it.”

When Leeds beat Bolton Wanderers to reach the fifth round, fans were dreaming of a glamour tie. A trip to Vicarage Road is hardly that, even allowing for Watford’s impressive return to the top flight.

But Cooper added: “As a footballer, you want to test yourself against the best. Now we have a great opportunity to do that.

“If we can get through maybe we can then get a big team at Elland Road in the next round – and hopefully beat them as well.”