* Who are the favourites to win the FA Cup now? Chelsea’s recent form under Guus Hiddink makes them prime candidates to claim the trophy they won under the Dutchman in 2009. They beat the Toffees in the final that year, and must face them in the last eight of this edition. Everton will hope their home form does not continue to blight their season.
For Arsenal, the cup has been relegated to third in their list of priorities. A first Premier League trophy in 12 years is possible, while Barcelona provide fearsome opposition in the Champions League. Watford will be justifiably hopeful of a first FA Cup semi-final berth since 2007, whether they face the Gunners or Hull City in the next round.
West Ham, the highest-ranked side guaranteed a quarter-final place, are rewarded for a scintillating performance against Blackburn with a visit to either Shrewsbury or Manchester United. It’s difficult to decide which opponent they would prefer. And one of Reading or Crystal Palace will also progress to the final four. This is a very real opportunity for the supposedly dwindling magic of the cup to be restored.
* Barcelona at home. Manchester United away. Swansea at home. Tottenham away. West Brom at home. Barcelona away. Arsenal’s fixture list from now until the end of March makes for daunting reading, and the club must now find space in their schedule for an FA Cup fifth-round replay with Hull City.
Arsenal should not be disheartened by the 0-0 draw with their Championship opponents. Arsene Wenger made nine changes to the side which beat Leicester so dramatically last Sunday, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny the only survivors. The performance from the hosts was understandably disjointed and careless at times, but they still registered 24 shots and 68 per cent of the possession. Save for an excellent performance from Hull’s reserve keeper Eldin Jakupovic, their place in the quarter-finals would already be secured.
But one factor from the game should provide worry for the Gunners. Six games into his return from injury, Alexis Sanchez looks considerably short of what is required heading into a crucial run of matches. The Chilean was wasteful from the bench at the Emirates Stadium, squandering possession on a number of occasions and hindering the attack.
The 27-year-old has looked a shadow of the player who impressed consistently last season, and injuries can hardly be used as an excuse. Sanchez has scored against only Dinamo Zagreb and Burnley is his last 14 games. In 26 matches in all competitions, he has scored in only six. The forward was struggling for form well before his injury.
* As comfortable and well-disciplined as Hull’s defensive performance was against Arsenal, it would be remiss to ignore their moment of extreme good fortune. In the words of the man himself, Alex Bruce ‘got away with one’ at the Emirates Stadium. With just seven minutes gone in north London, Mohamed Elneny’s goal-bound shot was deflected by the Hull central defender. Replays confirmed what the majority knew on first viewing: Bruce had deliberately blocked the shot with his arm.
Yep got away with one!! https://t.co/nHUnVmOquk
— Alex Bruce (@AlexBruce84) February 20, 2016
Referees have the most difficult job in football. They are rarely praised for completing their role well – if they go unnoticed it is measured as a success – and are vilified if they make an incorrect call. But incidents such as the one witnessed on Saturday lunchtime make it difficult to defend officials at times. Mike Dean had the perfect vantage point from which to view Bruce’s indiscretion, yet failed to award a penalty.
From the offside rule, to two-footed tackles, to the handball rule, the ever-changing laws of the game have become points of contention in football. But the one constant is the referee. Provided the officials enforce the rules as they were intended, there is rarely a problem. This is where handball rulings differ. Dean’s inability to award Arsenal a clear penalty follows similar high-profile incidents involving N’Golo Kante and Raheem Sterling, both of which were also called incorrectly. There is no consistency. Do referees judge handballs on whether they are ‘deliberate’, or whether the perpetrator’s hands are ‘in an unnatural position’? The ruling must not only be clarified, but properly implemented.
* “It’s ridiculous the number of games we have got coming up. Why can’t we just go to penalties? Why do we have to have a replay?”
Steve Bruce’s protestations after Hull secured a 0-0 draw were rather disingenuous. The Tigers earned their clean sheet through a combination of stoic defending, excellent goalkeeping and a portion of luck. But they registered just one shot on target. The Championship leaders had no intention of seeking an unlikely passage through to the last eight. Their aim was solely to avoid defeat, to earn a replay, and to hopefully surprise the Gunners on home soil. Bruce knew the consequences of the 0-0 draw he so desperately sought.
“If we have no injuries, we can cope with the fixtures,” said managerial rival Wenger on the subject. “I think FA Cup replays is a particularity of the English rules and you have to respect that.” The comments are in stark contrast to Bruce’s, and Wenger has more games to contend with before the end of the season. The Frenchman, unlike Bruce, realised that his team did not do enough to avoid a replay.
* Tony Pulis, in footballing terms, is not an enigma. He is a professional safety net, a guaranteed survival kit against Premier League relegation. Since earning promotion with Stoke in 2008, the Welshman has honed his craft in keeping clubs in the top flight. ‘Points over performances’ is the Pulis mantra. And it invariably works, as the Potters and Crystal Palace discovered.
West Brom have been the beneficiaries of Pulisball since January of last year, but vocal dissenters have emerged. An FA Cup defeat to Championship opposition will not help his cause.
For those of a Hawthorns disposition, the numbers make for difficult reading. The Baggies have recorded nine shots on target in their last six away games, including five against Peterborough (who recorded eight), two against Reading, and one against Bristol City. No Premier League side has attempted fewer shots per game (9.7), and no team records fewer shots on target per game (2.9). The mantle of top scorer after 33 games is shared by Salomon Rondon and Saido Berahino, with six goals each. After overseeing a spend of £32.5million this season, with just £5million of talent leaving the club, Pulis has guided West Brom to 14th, eight points clear of relegation.
Is it good enough? Certainly not for a growing minority of West Brom fans. ‘Points over performances’ is effective, but when neither is delivered with a semblance of consistency, it becomes a concern. Pulis’ style can sometimes be justified in the league, but is there a need for it in the FA Cup? A safety-first approach is not necessary in a cup competition against opposition 22 places below in the league pyramid. Yet this is a style which has become imbued in not only the manager, but the players. It is difficult to envisage a happy ending in this relationship with the fans.
To his credit, Pulis at least dealt with the game’s controversy in an admirable manner. Frustration from the West Brom fans is understandable. The club are struggling in the Premier League with survival not yet secure, and the FA Cup provided a form of escapism. To take a 1-0 lead against Championship opposition before losing 3-1 is not good enough. But there is a certain way to vent such frustration. Throwing missiles at players is not one of them.
“You can’t condone that,” said the manager, after a ‘fan’ hit captain Chris Brunt just below the eye with a coin. “I think the police have to get involved in this. I don’t think you can allow that to go by. That’s criminal.” A lifetime ban hopefully awaits.
* What might Everton have achieved this season had Roberto Martinez trusted Joel Robles earlier? The keeper was impressive against Bournemouth, saving Charlie Daniels’ penalty with the scores level, and keeping his sixth clean sheet in 12 games this season. Now his understudy, Tim Howard kept the same number in 23 appearances.
“We saw a very special performance from Joel Robles,” said Martinez after the game. “He was magnificent in the way he controlled the moment. He enjoys being the goalkeeper at Everton and has been working hard behind the scenes for a long, long time, and I was very pleased with his performance.”
In 12 games this season, Robles has conceded just ten goals. In Premier League terms, 12 clubs have allowed fewer goals than Everton this season. The 25-year-old could have made a considerable difference to the cause, had Martinez relented with his blind faith in Howard sooner.
* Some at Tottenham will choose to quantify their defeat to Crystal Palace as an opportunity to concentrate on an unlikely but now very realistic Premier League title challenge. Mauricio Pochettino will not be included in that gang. The Argentinean pursues victory in every game, and an uncharacteristically sluggish performance at White Hart Lane will leave the manager frustrated.
Spurs have tasted defeat just six times this season; only Leicester (four) have lost on fewer occasions. Pochettino restored Harry Kane on Sunday after resting him in the Europa League, while Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker, all mainstays in the Premier League, also featured from the start. Pochettino wanted to progress. The manager seeks to foster a winning mentality, and he will be both disappointed and angered not only by the defeat, but also the manner in which it was suffered. Palace know only too well the importance of momentum at a football club. Pochettino will desperately hope Tottenham have not lost theirs.
* Back to Arsenal briefly, and to what I would like to call the ‘Theo Walcott conundrum’. Basically, where does he fit into this Arsenal side?
For the player himself, the answer is clear: as a striker. But while Walcott often impresses as a centre forward, his output does not justify his starting place. Three goals in eight starts as a striker is a commendable return, but he is competing with Olivier Giroud – 13 goals in 24 games – for the role. Arsenal are considerably more potent and much more difficult to deal with when the Frenchman is leading the line. Walcott toiled against Hull, but he is completely ineffective against a defence intent on sitting back and absorbing pressure. Giroud can operate effectively against both deep and high defensive lines.
Which is where the Walcott issue escalates. He wishes to play centrally, but with just one role available to him, he cannot justify his inclusion there. The problem for Walcott now is that even a place on the wing is no guarantee. Wenger has a clear trust in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Joel Campbell would feel justifiably aggrieved not to start against Barcelona on Tuesday. The Costa Rican has usurped Walcott on recent form.
“It’s a complicated answer,” said Wenger when asked of Walcott’s best position earlier this season. “If you ask him where he loves to play, even he is not certain.” The England international turns 27 next month, and we are yet to truly discover his best position for either club or country. So is he.
* If Tottenham’s defeat proved anything, it is the identity of their most important player. The club are perceived to rely solely on Harry Kane for their goals, but the presence of Toby Alderweireld transforms Tottenham.
Spurs have conceded at least three goals fewer than any Premier League side. Just eight outfield players have played every minute of the season so far; the Belgian is one of them. With Alderweireld afforded a much-deserved rest against Palace, Tottenham reverted to their questionable defending of old. Eric Dier did not look his usually assured self when removed from central midfield, Kevin Wimmer struggled without his partner. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose failed to make their usual impact both in defence and attack. Remove Alderweireld, and Spurs look a different side.
“I am very fortunate to have had the education at Ajax,” said Alderweireld last December. “I am a defender, but I can play the ball. I have a good technique. At Atletico, I learned how to defend. I got the best from both sides and now Tottenham get the benefit from that. I feel I am a total defender.”
It’s difficult to argue. Laurent Koscielny and Chris Smalling are often discussed in the same bracket as the 26-year-old, but Alderweireld stands alone as the best central defender in the Premier League.
* Were it not for Leicester’s remarkable season, Watford would be the recipient of the most glowing references. The club’s ownership remains a point of discussion – their two record signings were made in January, and immediately loaned out to fellow Pozzo-owned Granada – but this has been a truly memorable campaign at Vicarage Road.
Vindication will be the buzzword at Watford. Tipped as favourites for relegation, the club made 13 signings after promotion from the Championship. A surefire recipe for disaster, it was assumed. Slavisa Jokanovic also left his role as manager, to be replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores. This was the Pozzos’ sixth permanent managerial appointment since purchasing the club in 2012; Flores is Watford’s 10th manager since Aidy Boothroyd left eight years ago. The club had earned a reputation: Managers beware.
Of course, the departure of each manager was easily explained. Jokanovic was dispensed with after demanding a pay rise. Billy McKinlay left after just two games and eight days before him, but the club’s subsequent promotion justified the decision. Oscar Garcia left the post due to ill health, and Beppe Sannino and Gianfranco Zola both resigned from the role of their own accord. No decision was indicative of an impatient, restless board of directors, and each have led to this most delightful of reigns under Flores. They are just two points behind Liverpool, a further three behind Manchester United, and we are closing on March.
* While Crystal Palace’s league campaign stutters and stalls, their quest for FA Cup glory continues. Alan Pardew’s side have not won in their last nine Premier League fixtures, leaving them just eight points above the relegation zone. Where wins over Southampton and Stoke did not affect an upturn in form, victory over title contenders Tottenham might.
Spurs were poor at White Hart Lane, but that should not detract from a deserved Palace victory. The return of Yannick Bolasie acts as another positive on a rare day of encouragement for Pardew and his side.
Bolasie’s return should not be understated. The winger missed over two months after sustaining a calf injury in December. Palace’s dreadful form since is no coincidence. In 11 games without their talisman, the club scored seven goals, winning just twice. Having made just 14 starts, Bolasie has been outscored by only Scott Dann and Yohan Cabaye in the league. The 26-year-old was bright and direct, and posed a considerable threat upon his introduction. Welcome back.
* Exceptional. Outstanding. Inventive. French. Those are just a number of the adjectives West Ham used to announce the signing of Dimitri Payet in the summer. Little did we know just how accurate such descriptions were.
There was more than an element of doubt when Payet joined for an ‘eight-figure sum’ from Marseille. The ‘international’ with just one goal in fifteen caps for France. The player whose experience of football had been limited to Ligue Un throughout his career. The 28-year-old signed on a five-year contract. This was a monumental risk on the part of West Ham, who were sure to struggle after Sam Allardyce was removed as manager.
As has proved the case in the aftermath of Allardyce, West Ham need not have been ‘careful what they wished for’. Payet has been a revelation thus far, scoring nine goals and assisting six in 23 games. None of his team-mates rank higher for either. In a league awash with No 10s, it could be argued that the Frenchman is as effective as David Silva and Mesut Ozil, the recognised masters of their craft.
“I haven’t seen better players than that,” said Bilic after the game. “He is also doing the dirty work and on the ball he is up there with Luka Modric from the players I have trained so far.” High praise, but completely worthy.
* From the ashes of a disastrous season, Chelsea could yet crown this campaign with cup glory. The Blues were excellent in thrashing a young Manchester City side 5-1, with a performance that demanded the appropriate attitude more than anything. Guus Hiddink has described the FA Cup as a priority, and it certainly showed at Stamford Bridge.
The list of positives were numerous for the Blues. Eden Hazard’s one goal and two assists will potentially herald a return to his true form. Cesc Fabregas continued his excellence in central midfield, as did John Obi Mikel, and Bertrand Traore excited once more as a second-half substitute. Five goals will boost confidence heading into the final months of the season.
Chelsea travel to Southampton next. If they beat Saints – which would be an impressive feat in itself – the gap between the two clubs is closed to four points. European football through the Premier League remains a possibility, however slight. And that is due to the dominant run of form precipitated by Hiddink’s arrival. Might Roman Abramovich be wishing he had acted sooner with regards to Jose Mourinho?
* Manuel Pellegrini kept his promise. In describing the clash with Chelsea, one which would normally be treated as the tie of the fifth round, as “not a real game”, the manager had made his stance clear. Injuries have blighted this Manchester City squad, and the club were forced to play on Sunday, three days before a crucial Champions League trip to Ukraine. The first leg with Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday is followed by the Capital One Cup final on Sunday, with Premier League games against Liverpool and Aston Villa the following week. The FA Cup was relegated to fourth in their list of priorities, and understandably so.
Confusion was the general reaction when Pellegrini named his starting line-up on Sunday. Who is Tosin Adarabioyo? Where does David Faupala play? What is a Fernando? Five players were handed their full debuts at Stamford Bridge. Predictably, the club were accused of ‘disrespecting the FA Cup’. The clamour is so often for managers to hand youth players more opportunities in the first team; Pellegrini, whatever his reasoning, started five academy products on Sunday, yet he faced almost universal criticism. You cannot have it both ways.
* Where City were condemned for starting five academy products, Chelsea were denounced for not playing one of their own. Ruben Loftus-Cheek proves an elusive figure in blue.
“I am happy youngsters are now coming up at this club,” said Guus Hiddink earlier in the week. “It’s a signal now that young players have the opportunity to make an impact.” The appointment of the Dutchman as interim manager was seen as a shift from the previous hierarchy. Jose Mourinho rarely provided youngsters with chances, and Loftus-Cheek was the most obvious example. The 20-year-old was expected to be the first Chelsea youth to make the progression from academy graduate to first-team fixture since John Terry nearly two decades ago. The era of Ruben was imminent.
But Loftus-Cheek’s breakthrough never fully transpired. Mourinho played the midfielder just four times before his December sacking, his last appearance coming as a substitute in second-half stoppage-time against Tottenham. Hiddink was supposed to represent the antithesis of his predecessor, the manager to oversee a period where youth was promoted. Yet Loftus-Cheek remains on the bench. The England youth international has played just 144 minutes under Hiddink; Bertrand Traore, with his third goal in as many appearances, has usurped him as the club’s most promising prospect.
* As if to further highlight the folly of criticising Pellegrini for favouring youth in his squad, the more experienced players were the most disappointing for the visitors on Sunday. Willy Caballero may have saved Oscar’s penalty, but his performance exemplified just how important Joe Hart is. Martin Demichelis was made to look each of his 35 years and many more. Fernando was typically ineffective in midfield, dominated by the excellent John Obi Mikel. All three will escape criticism as the emphasis is placed on the selection of the youngsters.
Pellegrini deserves censure for City’s starting line-up at Stamford Bridge, but not for handing an opportunity to younger players to impress on a competitive stage against seasoned stars. Instead, the Chilean should be questioned as to how a squad that is supposedly built to compete on four fronts must rely on Caballero, Demichelis and Fernando to provide back-up. Pellegrini will be fondly remembered for his three years at the Etihad Stadium, but his continued trust in players who are patently not good enough continues to infuriate. Pep will relish a summer clear-out.