An Olympic gold medal winner is heading for territory he has never previously charted. Marcelo Bielsa’s pedigree in knockout competitions also includes steering his teams to the finals of the Copa América, Copa Libertadores and the Uefa Cup. Now, at the fourth time of asking, he has finally reached the third round of the Carabao Cup.
As Crewe belied a gap of 51 league positions to provide valiant resistance, it was tempting to wonder if it represented the final frontier for Bielsa. Instead, Kalvin Phillips and Jack Harrison provided a late flurry of goals and, aided by an outstanding cameo from Patrick Bamford, Leeds registered only their third win in a cup match in Bielsa’s four-season reign.
Their 2021 has already brought one ignominious defeat to lower-league opposition, at Crawley in January, but Leeds were relentless enough to avert a repeat. Bielsa, whose cup teams have tended to feature a sprinkling of youngsters, took few risks with an unusually strong selection, though his side spurned many an opportunity. “We took a very long time to score,” the manager rued. “We missed 10 chances in each half.”
But weight of pressure told. His team produced 28 shots and eventually rewarded Elland Road’s biggest crowd in this competition since 2009 — Crewe can console themselves with the thought that they attracted a bigger gate than Manchester United did a decade ago — and it was a Leeds supporter who wrenched open the floodgates.
Nominated by his teammates, Phillips was the captain for the night but while he was serenaded as the “Yorkshire Pirlo” by his adoring public, he was more Yorkshire Inzaghi when he struck, stealing in unmarked to meet Harrison’s corner with a low volley. It was a redemptive moment: Phillips had spurned the clearest chance of the opening period, heading wide from an earlier Harrison corner.
Harrison was irrepressible or, as Bielsa put it: “He unbalanced a lot through his sector.” His partnership with Junior Firpo exudes promise and the winger was the supplier when the summer signing clipped the outside of the post. Harrison skewed an effort wide himself when found by Tyler Roberts. He ended the evening with a swift double, each testament to the impact the elusive Bamford made against a tiring defence.
The striker only figured for the final quarter, though Crewe took it as a compliment that he was required at all. It was long enough for Bamford to twice test Will Jääskeläinen, head wide and then tee up Harrison, whose chip deflected in off the unfortunate goalkeeper. That was an attempt at a deft finish; a more emphatic one followed when Harrison drilled in the last-minute third after Bamford picked out Roberts, whose shot was parried by Jääskeläinen.
If Harrison’s excellence has become familiar, the unusual sight was Adam Forshaw, who made a comeback after 23 months out and almost capped it with a goal and earned a glowing tribute from Bielsa. “He has all the virtues to become a player that can shine,” said the manager.
His praise extended to the opposition. “Marcelo Bielsa said at the end we set up magnificently,” said the Crewe manager, David Artell. “We made a good fist of it but in the end Premier League quality told.” Crewe have a solitary point in League One but Ben Knight, the 19-year-old borrowed from Manchester City, was bright in attack, though theirs was largely a resolute rearguard action.
Crewe’s efforts were epitomised by Kayne Ramsay, the Southampton loanee, who made a goal-saving intervention by flinging himself in the path of Rodrigo’s shot, and Billy Sass-Davies. The latter, sent off at Hartlepool in the previous round, acquitted himself rather better with a number of well-judged blocks and a goalline clearance to deny Diego Llorente. Behind them, Jääskeläinen revived memories of his father, Jussi, before he was finally beaten. “The most disappointing thing is the first goal came from a set piece,” Artell said. “We were 12 minutes away from the lottery of a penalty shootout.”