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The FA Cup is a tournament known for its ‘magic’. One thing many football fans in West Yorkshire are dying to know is just how much magic the tournament might behold for them this year.
With little left to play for in their Championship campaign, whether or not Leeds’ 2015-16 season becomes one to be remembered forever (or just yet another one no longer in the top flight) comes down to an FA Cup run that has already taken them into the last 16 clubs of the competition.
No doubt starving to end a hardware drought that stretches back to 1991-92, a deep FA Cup run for Leeds would salvage a season that has so far been ridden with injuries, coaching changes, and supporter protests against owner Massimo Cellino.
Amidst all this turmoil, the lads from Leeds will travel to Watford on February 20 to face a Hornets side looking to make their own run to the Cup finals.
How They Got Here
Leeds defeated a pair of Championship sides to get to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup for the first time since the 2002-03 tournament. Leeds handed Rotherham a 2-0 loss at Elland Road on January 9, which was followed up three weeks later with a 2-1 win at Bolton.
Watford has taken a similar path to reach this point of the competition. Like Leeds, they defeated two championship sides (Newcastle and Nottingham Forest). And also like Leeds, their league performance in 2016 has been spotty thus far with a record of two wins, a draw, and four losses in the new year.
Watford’s Tale of the Tape
However, their overall performance in England’s top flight has been above and beyond what most anticipated ahead of the season. Coming off a solid win against Crystal Palace on February 13 that bumped them up to 9th in the Premier League table, Watford looks assured another season in the EPL as they sit 12 points from the drop zone ahead of the FA Cup tie with Leeds.
Much of their table position is thanks to striker Odion Ighalo, whose 14 EPL goals are good enough to see him currently tied for fourth in the league. Leeds could have a tough time defending the Nigerian whose name has been heavily involved in transfer rumors with Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, and other top clubs.
Last year in the Championship, Watford won both of its matches against Leeds by a combined 7-3.
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How Will Leeds Play Without Wood?
Leeds will have to face the Hornets without their own star striker, Chris Wood. The New Zealand-international leads Leeds with eight Championship goals, but is battling a string of hamstring injuries that has kept him from playing a full match since the end of December. To make matters worse, the 24-year old has also caught a virus that caused head coach Steve Evans to rule him out for the tie and remark to the media, "We can't establish whether it's his hamstring because he's just got a little virus that gives you a problem top to bottom and people will know what I mean by that. That completely rules him out and that would have ruled him out on his own.”
This only furthers the weight on a group of mids and forwards that has only found the back of the net three times in their last six matches. In their most recent match against Middlesbrough, front partners Souleymane Doukara and Mirco Antenucci played well in the eyes of Evans, but failed to score in the 0-0 draw. Doukara’s performance has been critical in Leeds’ FA Cup run thus far, having scored in both their FA Cup games to date this campaign. Just in time for the Watford match, Leeds will welcome back into the first team Italian right-back Gaetano Berardi, who has been out with an ankle injury since December 12.
Who They Could Play After
Should Leeds survive the FA Cup’s fifth round, it’s anyone’s guess as to who the Whites could go on to play, however there is at least one potential matchup their supporters will be pulling for.
That obvious first choice would be to play Shrewsbury Town, the lone club left in the competition that is not in one of England’s top two divisions. However, playing them would mean that the League One side did the improbable and advanced past a Manchester United side hungry for hardware.
Against the other remaining Championship sides--Hull City, Reading, and Blackburn--Leeds has posted a 1-1-1 record in the league. The loss came to Rovers after Leeds surrendered two goals in the first six minutes of the match, which would turn out to be the deciding scoreline.
The remaining potential matchups would all be against Premier League sides: Arsenal, West Brom, Bournemouth, Everton, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Man City, and Man United. While it was a somewhat watered-down lineup that featured no Romelu Lukaku, Leeds did notably beat Everton in an August friendly by a scoreline of 2-0.
Should Leeds continue their magical run and make the FA Cup Final, they’d be the first non-Premier League side to do so since League One’s Cardiff City did it in 2008.
Gary Andrew Speed, MBE — Always In Our Hearts, 1969-2011
Leeds United Americas (LUA)
You can take the Leeds out of the top flight but you'll never take the top flight out of Leeds.