Leeds United find themselves in unfamiliar territory this evening as they travel to Craven Cottage to face Fulham in the FA Cup fifth round.
A victory over their fellow Premier League side would see Leeds through to the competition’s quarter finals, a stage they haven’t reached in twenty years.
The Whites and the Cottagers come into tonight’s fixture at opposite ends of the table, in 17th and 6th place respectively. It is fair to say – then – that Fulham will provide the Whites with their first real test in the competition this season after they faced lower-league opposition Cardiff City and Accrington Stanley in previous rounds.
Fulham scraped through a fourth round replay against Sunderland 2-3 on Wearside, but will be bolstered by the alleged return of striker Aleksandar Mitrovic to their ranks this evening.
The Serbian international has been the top scorer for the London club so far this term, netting 11 times in 19 Premier League appearances. It was the 28-year-old who opened the scoring for the visitors in Leeds’ humbling 2-3 home loss to Marco Silva’s side in October.
Despite the challenges the Whites face, BBC Radio Leeds’ Adam Pope has stressed the importance of head coach Javi Gracia “going strong” against Tuesday night’s opponents. A victory, Pope states, would be “intrinsic” to the rest of their season.
“It’s become so intrinsic to the momentum about Saturday [against Chelsea] that he can’t not go strong at Fulham on Tuesday night”, Pope said on the Don’t Go To Bed Just Yet Podcast.
“We’d all love it [a trip to Wembley for the semi-final]. You think of all the Newcastle fans down there and they just had the biggest party.
“They’ve had that taste of success.
“Why not? Why not be there?
“It’s intrinsic to the rest of the season that Tuesday night they go and win again.”
A balancing act
Whilst what Pope says about momentum is true, this must be finely balanced with a match against Chelsea at the weekend on the horizon.
A decent cup run would be nice – and it is something that Gracia has experience with after leading former club Watford to the FA Cup final in 2019 – but survival in the league has to remain the priority.
Gracia clearly relishes the opportunity for greatness that England’s most prestigious cup competition can provide, and by his own admission is keen on repeating what he achieved with Watford at Leeds.
But is is hard to argue that naming a completely unchanged XI after the victory against Southampton over the weekend would be wise. The fixture would – for me – be better used as a means for Gracia to get a deeper understanding of his fringe players and provide rest to the first-team figures who need it.
A win tonight would be great, but no tears are going to be shed if Leeds are knocked out and allowed to devote all their attention to the league.