In the Third Round of the FA Cup Leeds United continued its losing ways as the team fell 1-0 away to a pesky Sunderland side. Black Cat defender Patrick van Aanholt tallied the lone goal on the afternoon in the 33rd minute via a blistering left footed strike. While the Dutchman's attempt settled the affair and caused Leeds to chalk up another defeat, there are several positives that the Whites can take away from the contest.
One of the biggest talking points from the match was Neil Redfearn's decision to make wholesale changes to the starting eleven. Marco Silvestri, Liam Cooper, Adryan, and Mirco Antennuci were the only mainstays present. Squad and role players like Gaetano Berardi, Dario Del Fabro, Luke Murphy, Charlie Taylor, Casper Sloth, Rodolph Austin, and Brian Montengro all were handed starts.
This mixture of players resulted in a rather disappointing first half in which emergency defending, stout play from Silvestri, and poor Sunderland finishing surely left Redfearn feeling lucky that his side was only down by one at the halftime interval. Following the break, the combination of experience and youth drastically changed their approach to the game as Leeds began to take the match to Sunderland.
The team showed a renewed sense of determination and vigor as they pressed further up the pitch and put the Black Cats under a great deal of pressure. In the early stages of the second half Adryan's strike was strongly denied by Costel Pantilimon and in stoppage time Liam Cooper, who wore the captain's armband on the day, agonizingly saw his header hit the woodwork.
While these were the two most clear-cut opportunities, arguably the strongest chance on the afternoon came through the hard work of Luke Murphy. The Englishman burst down the left side and appeared to be hauled down inside the box, but referee Mean Dean adjudged that the foul took place outside the penalty area.
To be fair it was a close call, but a bit of fortune in Leeds' favor could have surely turned around the cup tie. In Redfearn's post-match comments he expressed clear frustration and felt hard done by the controversial decision: "It looked a penalty to me. The referee made a decision and you have got to abide by that, but it came on the back of quite a weight of pressure when we were getting in and around their box well. A goal at that time to make it 1-1, I think we would have gone on to win it."
Even though this isolated incident and the match did not turn out well for Leeds, there are a few things that can constructively be drawn from the 90 minutes. First off, youngsters Montengro, Del Fabro, Murphy, and Sloth all showed brightly and took advantage of their opportunity to impress. This group has received limited minutes in Championship play, but their performance against the Black Cats suggests that more playing time could be on the way for the youngsters.
Another positive from the match is that the veteran play of Antenucci and Austin shone through. In recent weeks the two have fallen off the radar a bit, but each rose to the occasion and provided some much needed experience for the Whites. While Austin faces stiff competition for minutes in the center of the park, it is clear that he brings a deal of bite and intensity to the trenches that has been missing in recent weeks. As for Antenucci, he showed glimpses of his class on Sunday and surely Redfearn will lean on him to get the club out of this rut.
The last positive from the match concerns the overall second half performance. The intensity that the club displayed in the second 45 minutes made it seem at times that Leeds could have escaped the Stadium of Light with a ticket to the Fourth Round. When Redfearn was asked about the second half he expressed a balance of misfortune and praise: "In the second half, I thought we were the better side by a fair stretch. We turned it into a cup tie. We got at them and I thought they struggled with it and I thought we were really unlucky today."
Even though the team is now out of the FA Cup there is reason to believe that these positives can manifest into a more complete team performance when Leeds takes on Bolton this upcoming Saturday in league play. The Sunderland match revealed glimpses of what Neil Redfearn's side is capable of and it will be interesting to see what players take the pitch against the Trotters.