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Crawley Town 3 v 0 Leeds United
FA Cup
Sunday, 10th January 2021 Kick-off 15:00
Inexperienced Leeds side crash out of FA Cup at Crawley
Sunday, 10th Jan 2021 18:32 by Tim Whelan

Another year, another FA Cup embarrassment, this time at the hands of Crawley Town. The difference this time being that we could have had a good a chance in the Cup if we’d taken it seriously.

In the days leading up to the game the indications were that Marcello Bielsa respected the traditions of the FA Cup and that he was going to field a strong team. So I was expecting a slightly more experienced starting eleven than the one we had, given that we’re in a comfortable position in the Premier League and we’re not likely to be sucked into a relegation battle.

We began with several players who hadn’t been getting a regular start, with Hernandez, Costa, Poveda and Shackleton, along with young Davis at left back and the return of Kiko the clown in goal. There were eight changes in goal, though one of them was the return of Liam Cooper in defence. Bielsa also experimented by having Rodrigo in the centre forward role that he occupies for Spain.

Crawley made a lively start, but after the first ten minutes we began to dominate position and seemed to have Crawley on the back foot for the rest of the first half. But we struggled to convert that into clear-cut chances, with far too many promising moves breaking down through poor passes, while Crawley were seemingly content to get a lot of men behind the ball and make it difficult for us to pass through them.

They also seemed to be using an offside trap, which is a tactic we don’t come up against too often these days. It can be a risky tactic, but we never seemed to find the perfectly timed killer ball we needed to break through it. It didn’t help that Phillips was pulled back as an extra central defender in the formation Bielsa uses against teams who have two up front, so we were missing his creative side, when he can start attacks from deep midfield.

Although the starting eleven had looked reasonably strong on paper it was all getting rather disjointed, with players who don’t usually play together in the same team trying to put Bielsa’s complex tactical ideas into practise. The closest we came in the first half was a shot from Poveda from a narrow angle after he’d gone past a couple of defenders, but the keeper managed to save with his legs.

We also had a shout for a penalty when Rodrigo was pulled back in front of goal, but neither the ref or his assistant would have had a good view of it. If VAR had been in use we might well have got it, though they might have thought the Spaniard had gone down a little too easily.

At the other end Crawley went close shortly before half-time as our old vulnerability from corners reared it’s ugly head again, as Nicholls beat Cooper in the air to send a powerful header towards goal, but Casilla was in the right place to beat the ball away.

At the break I wasn’t too concerned, thinking that if we continued to have most of the ball we’d get a goal eventually. That is until I saw the half-time substitutions, with young Casey and Jenkins coming on for Struijk and Cooper. Why? Cooper has been out with an injury and Struijk won’t be first choice when either Koch or Llorente are back, so I didn’t see why either of them needed to be rested.

All it did was to unsettle the defence, and give us a completely inexperienced back line. The other change saw Harrison come on for Rodrigo, which meant that we had four wingers on the field (I’m including Alioski in this, as he wasn’t playing at left back). One thing I would have done would have been to have all the ‘rested’ first team players on the bench in case things went wrong, as we had six days before the next match, but as it was we mostly had under-23 players available.

It only took six minutes for Crawley to take advantage of our makeshift back line, when Tsaroulla was able to get past several challenges, including last man Phillips, to shoot across Casilla into the far corner. Kiko has been the scapegoat for this defeat in a few Facebook groups and he might have been able to get to it, but the shot was pretty well struck.

And two minutes later they were two in front, with the move coming down the right this time. Nadesan also hit his shot pretty well and this time Casilla was truly embarrassed, even if the ball did take a nasty bobble off the pitch right in front of him. So with more than half an hour still to play Bielsa made his final two changes, with Greenwood and Raphinia replacing Poveda and Davis, which involved Alioski reverting to left back.

This looked a more sensible couple of changes, and having heard so much about the goals Greenwood has scored for the under 23s I assumed he would go up front in search of the goals we desperately needed to keep us in the cup. But no. Harrison stayed there while Greenwood went to work further back, so we had a winger at centre forward and a centre forward in midfield. This was simply begging for defeat.

Things could only get worse, and Phillips received a harsh yellow card when he reached out for the ball but a Crawley player nipped in just in front of him. But it was definitely a foul, and when Nadesan got his head to the free kick Casilla could only palm it straight out, with Tunnicliffe the first to react and taking the opportunity to hammer the ball into the roof of the net.

The scoreline very nearly got even more embarrassing when Casey gave the ball away and Watters took the opportunity to race through and take the ball past Casilla, but Casey atoned for his error by racing back to block the final shot.

At the other end our efforts to pull one back produced several shots from distance that flew high and wide, though a free kick from Raphinia wasn’t far over the bar. And when we did manage a powerful shot on target (which I think was from Raphinia again) a defender bravely flung himself in the way to block the danger.

All that happened in the closing stages was that Crawley gave a debut to a ‘reality TV’ star who has apparently been on ‘The only way is Essex’ and ‘Strictly’. But they are two programmes I wouldn’t be seen dead watching, so I had no idea who he was. I long for the day that one of our cup opponents gives some game time to Michael Portillo, or one of the comedians from ‘Mock the week’.

And so we went down to an entirely preventable FA Cup defeat. As the commentators said, a lot of Leeds fans will be very disappointed and think that we would have had a chance in the Cup this season if we’d gone through.

And Marcello Bielsa commented “The result generates a lot of sadness and disappointment for us." All too true Marcello, especially for all the grumpy old gits like me who grew up watching football in the 1970s, when the FA Cup was regarded as the greatest cup competition in the world. Enough said.


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