Leeds on the road to redemption as they head to Arsenal
FA Cup Third Round: Arsenal v Leeds United, Saturday January 8, 12.45pm, Live on ITV1
ONE year ago this weekend, Leeds United striker Jermaine Beckford scored the only goal of the FA Cup third-round clash at Old Trafford to knock out Manchester United.
It went down as one of the greatest FA Cup upsets in recent history, and it was also the result which suggested the Yorkshire side were nearing the end of their journey back to the top table of English football after several years in the wilderness.
Relegation from the Premier League in 2004, and from the Championship three years later had the club at one point on the brink of extinction. The road back has been a long one, but now they find themselves within striking distance of top-flight football once again.
Under the astute guidance of manager Simon Grayson, Leeds are in the thick of the race for promotion from the Championship, and come Saturday’s clash at the Emirates they will relish another chance to confirm their revival.
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United’s quest for redemption makes this third-round clash far less of a formality for Arsenal than it might appear on paper, and given that the Gunners have already lost to two promoted sides this season – West Brom and Newcastle – Leeds come to north London with plenty of confidence.
That said, back-to-back promotion is undoubtedly the target for Grayson this season, and for that reason the FA Cup may prove a distraction rather than a priority, although it would still be a shock if he fielded anything other than his strongest possible side on Saturday.
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Beckford was snapped up by Everton during pre-season, leaving Argentinian forward Luciano Becchio to lead the line, where he has 13 goals to date this season, and should Leeds stick with their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation he will most likely be the dangerman against the Gunners.
Attacking support from midfield is provided by Ross McCormack and 22-year-old captain Jonathan Howson, the heartbeat of the side and a player some are already tipping for an England future, while Australian Neil Kilkenny sits in front of the defence.
The impressive Robert Snodgrass has occupied the right-wing berth in recent weeks and is one of the club’s more impressive youngsters, already passing the 100-appearance mark at the age of just 23. Max Gradel is another key figure, capable of operating either on the left or right, his double against QPR earlier in the season helping establish United as genuine promotion contenders, despite Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to second-placed Cardiff.
Grayson may also turn to Bradley Johnson on the left wing, a player who can also operate through the middle.
To complement a midfield packed with young legs, Leeds have a defence fuelled by experience, much of which comes from centre-backs Andy O’Brien, on-loan from Bolton, and ex-Sunderland, Preston and Wolves veteran Neill Collins.
Paul Connolly is a solid presence at right-back, with either George McCartney or Andrew Hughes likely to slot in at left-back.
In goal, the familiar figure of Kasper Schmeichel joined the club from Notts County during the summer as Leeds began targeting promotion to the Premier League.
Ahead of this match, Grayson admitted he would swap an upset at the Emirates for a play-off spot and a shot at promotion. Clearly, he is mindful of the slump his side endured after their win at Old Trafford last season, when they won just eight of their next 25 games.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, maintains that his Arsenal side are still aiming to win all four trophies, and their performances in cup competitions so far this season have frequently reinforced that ambition.
That may prove the key factor – defeat for Leeds would not be a disaster, while for Arsenal it undoubtedly would be.
Recent history favours Arsenal: Leeds were thumped 5-0 in their last league visit to north London in 2004, and the Gunners also won 4-1 in the FA Cup at Elland Road in the same season.
Don’t expect anything quite so convincing on Saturday but, even against a Leeds side once more within touching distance of the big time, Arsenal should have enough to ensure their place in the draw for the fourth round.
Prediction: Arsenal 3
Leeds United 1