* Timing is everything. And the return to full fitness of Alexis Sanchez will mean everything to Arsenal. It was all so easy that it did not feel like the Chilean was making his first start since November against Burnley, with Sanchez first assisting Calum Chambers’s glorious opener, before scoring the winner himself. The 27-year-old’s first goal in two months provides a timely boost for both player and club; he remains Arsenal’s second-top goalscorer this season despite the injury lay-off.
But Sanchez was not the only returning player. The Chilean was not even the most important returnee. Francis Coquelin was afforded just over 70 minutes on his recovery from a knee injury, and his comeback, allied with that of Sanchez, provides Arsenal with renewed impetus. Joel Campbell has been a more than worthy replacement for Sanchez, while Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey have struggled somewhat in the absence of Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, but two of Arsenal’s talismans are back. Just in time, too. The 4-0 reverse at Southampton must be avenged in midweek, while a visit to Bournemouth provides the false sense of security in a February which also involves games against Leicester, Barcelona and Manchester United. Make or break for the Gunners, but hopefully not for their players.
* The biggest winners of the FA Cup fourth-round weekend? 32 teams played, 14 secured safe passage, and four more will vie for the remaining two places in Tuesday’s replays. There were scintillating performances from Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Reading, a magic-evoking comeback for Shrewsbury, and battling performances from Manchester United and Arsenal, but one side will have been watching on with more than a passing interest.
Despite their exit at the hands of Tottenham courtesy of a replay in the last round, the weekend arguably belongs to Leicester. Their three closest challengers to the title remain in a potentially energy-sapping competition. Staying above fifth-placed Manchester United will be the tentative target for the Foxes in search of an unlikely Champions League berth, and they too head into the fifth round. West Ham and Liverpool, in sixth and seventh respectively, face at least another game in a packed fixture list.
Leicester have just 15 games remaining. Manchester City, fighting for trophies on four fronts, could potentially play 29 games from now until the end of the season, albeit that would require them to reach the final of each competition they are in. Arsenal have a potential 28 games remaining; Spurs and Manchester United face 30 each; Liverpool could play up to 32 games by May. Having seen the Reds build a Premier League title challenge two years ago on the back of playing once a weekend with no European football to contend with, Leicester will be all-too aware that their fixture list potentially contains close to half the games of their closest competitors. They will never have a better chance of at least maintaining their 10-point gap on fifth place.
* “It’s been dreadful to have an outstanding player who has dropped off because of circumstances,” said West Brom manager Tony Pulis of Saido Berahino on Friday. Agreed, Tone. Just last season, Berahino was thought to be on the cusp of his England debut, with only five players outscoring him in the Premier League. “Saido has to realise he is a footballer,” Pulis continued, “in my opinion, he has wasted three or four months and he can’t afford to waste any more time.”
In turn, West Brom, and chairman Jeremy Peace in particular, have to realise that Berahino is not a commodity. The 22-year-old has not sought a move from the Hawthorns in the ‘correct’ way, that cannot be denied; Berahino has not helped himself with his behaviour. But the club are not blameless. West Brom blocked Berahino’s move to Spurs on deadline day of the last transfer window, and it seems unlikely he will secure his exit this time around, either. Berahino may have “wasted three or four months” of his career, but West Brom have more than helped in that regard.
So it was good to see the striker hit form against Peterborough on Saturday. Two goals against the club at which he spent half a season on loan in 2012 salvaged West Brom’s FA Cup status. It might just have placed him back at the forefront of the minds of certain clubs in time for Monday’s deadline, too. Reports on Sunday link both Newcastle and Tottenham with last-ditch efforts to sign the Burundi-born frontman. Both sides would benefit from his addition.
Which makes his situation at West Brom all the more galling. Only five of his outfield team-mates have fewer Premier League minutes to their name this season, yet Berahino is West Brom’s joint-top goalscorer. Since the start of the 2013/14 season, the striker has scored 22 league goals; the next closest in that timeframe is Stephane Sessegnon, with seven. Victor Anichebe and James Morrison follow on six, with Chris Brunt on five. For a club so bereft of goals, to have left Berahino on the bench for much of the season beggars belief. If he moves on deadline day, excellent. If he does not, the hope is that player and club can reach an amicable agreement to set aside issues until the end of the season. West Brom might need him more than he needs them.
* It’s time to talk about Wayne. The stance from this website on Mr Rooney has been the cause of much consternation since the start of the season. Some feel it is unfair to question a striker with the same amount of Premier League goals this campaign as Graziano Pelle, who hasn’t scored since November 1, or Christian Benteke, who faces regular scrutiny over his place at Liverpool. More often than not, the accusation of holding ‘an agenda’ or ‘grudge’ against the 30-year-old captain eventually surfaces. Leave our Wayne alone.
But, as fair as the criticisms were, Rooney must also be praised when necessary. His exquisite finish against Derby in Manchester United’s 3-1 victory means the striker now has six goals in his first six games of 2016. It took him until the last day of April to match that tally in 2015. As lethargic and insipid as Rooney looked earlier in the season, the captain appears to be a man rejuvenated currently. Seven more goals, and the second of Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring records is broken this season.
* Despite a summer transfer window which was described in many quarters as ‘catastrophic’, Tottenham continue to prove that they boast one of the strongest squads in the Premier League. They made seven changes to the side which overcame Crystal Palace in their last league game, and Colchester were swept aside in a dominant performance. Only Arsenal, Bournemouth, Hull and Watford made more changes to their starting line-ups and still advanced to the next round.
The Spurs eleven which took to the field at the Colchester Community Stadium had made 108 Premier League starts this season, with 652 top-flight career appearances between them; the seven-man bench had made just three fewer cumulative Premier League starts this season, and only 124 fewer top-flight career appearances. Nacer Chadli grasped the opportunity to impress Mauricio Pochettino on only his third start since early October, while Kieran Trippier, Kevin Wimmer and Nabil Bentaleb proved that the club have plenty in reserve. That Harry Kane played another 67 minutes with no suitable replacement could be slightly worrying, but you can’t injure what’s not real.
Spurs are in the fifth round of the FA Cup, have a five-point gap on fifth-placed Manchester United in the Premier League, and remain in the Europa League knock-out stages. This could yet be a memorable season at White Hart Lane.
* Finally, a well-earned rest for Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has played all but 35 minutes of Everton’s Premier League campaign, and missed just 12 minutes of their journey to the Capital One Cup semi-final. The 22-year-old has played more minutes than any other striker this season – seven more than Harry Kane, and 31 more than Jamie Vardy. Roberto Martinez has seen fit to start him in each Everton league game, substituting him in just five of them. The Toffees were drawing twice and winning three times on those occasions. Everton are Martinez’s bike; Lukaku is the stabilisers.
Against Carlisle – against League Two opposition – Martinez saw fit to take the stabilisers off. Or, rather, not use them altogether. Lukaku has looked understandably laboured in recent weeks, tasked with leading the Everton attack week in, week out. This was only the fifth time in all competitions since the start of 2014 that Everton had won without Lukaku featuring. Newcastle ought to beware a rejuvenated forward on Wednesday.
* Five players have started each of Liverpool’s three FA Cup games. Brad Smith has been named as the left-back in both matches against Exeter and against West Ham. Cameron Brannagan, Kevin Stewart and Joao Teixeira have been handed midfield roles in every game. And then there was one more.
It’s difficult to shake off the feeling that it might just not work out for Christian Benteke at Liverpool. His last three starts for the club have come in those three FA Cup games, and his search for a goal continues after another struggling performance against West Ham. Benteke is now nine games without finding the net. For a £32.5million striker lacking confidence, that’s not a great look.
This is what Benteke has been reduced to: a £32.5million designated driver among the Liverpool kids. Jurgen Klopp made ten changes from the side that eked past Stoke in the Capital One Cup, of which one was their lone striker. But Benteke toiled as Benteke does, failing to breach the West Ham goal. Roberto Firmino has almost certainly pushed to the front of the pecking order, but has Benteke even been surpassed by countryman Divock Origi in his injury-enforced absence? The 25-year-old was static in his movement and lacking in his finish once again, and one fears for his Anfield future when Klopp is afforded time and money to bring in his own players in the summer.
* It didn’t take long for the predictable comparisons to emerge. Manchester United may play host to the talents of the most expensive teenager ever in world football, but neighbours Manchester City boast an equally talented, younger alternative. And he’s an academy product to boot.
Well, not quite. But Kelechi Iheanacho will doubtless be billed as such. It just goes to show the pride that those at the Etihad Stadium have in their precocious star.
Never has a middle name been more prophetic. Kelechi Promise Iheanacho’s treble against Aston Villa – still Premier League opposition by name – means the Nigerian stands alongside Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero as Manchester City hat-trick goalscorers this season. Esteemed company, and thus far, Iheanacho does not look out of place.
Back to Martial, who has scored eight goals in 28 games in his debut season in England, of which 25 have been starts. Ten months younger than the Frenchman, Iheanacho has scored eight goals in 18 games, of which five have been starts. While Martial may have emerged as Man United’s accidental main man this campaign, Iheanacho has become City’s wildcard.
* “You could see by the results in the FA Cup, the Premier League (teams are) taking this competition a lot more seriously than before.” – Alan Pardew, January 30.
Death, taxes, and discussion about whether Premier League teams value the FA Cup highly enough in the early stages. Fourteen top-flight sides entered the fourth round, and only two exit at that stage – both at the hands of Premier League rivals. West Brom travel to Peterborough in an attempt to secure their place in a replay, while one of West Ham and Liverpool will fall at the second hurdle.
So, do Premier League sides prioritise other competitions? Such a notion is dismissed by Pardew above, and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was one of many to reflect a similar attitude. “I think the most important thing is everyone could see our line-up was not disrespectful to the FA Cup,” said the German, who made ten changes for the 0-0 draw with West Ham. The Hammers made five.
Premier League sides can cope with the added demands of a fixture pile-up. Twelve teams made five or more changes to the starting line-up from their previous match in this round. Eight were top-flight sides, and only Stoke – beaten by Crystal Palace – lost. Four were Championship sides, with half winning and half losing. Why then is it Premier League sides who are accused of ‘disrespecting’ the competition?
Why did Nottingham Forest, 11th in the Championship, make eight changes against Watford? Their 13-game unbeaten run dating back to November was brought to an end as a result. Where is the criticism of Sheffield Wednesday, who made nine changes and suffered defeat to Shrewsbury, who made only three? Runs in cup competitions are often seen as a hindrance, but they can so often have the opposite effect. Bradford narrowly missed out on a League One play-off place despite reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals last season. Sheffield United qualified for one of those play-off places after balancing a run to the Capital One Cup semi-finals. Cup runs can boost confidence and promote a winning mentality.
Cup defeats can have an adverse effect. In the third round, promotion-chasing Ipswich made seven changes to face Portsmouth. The League Two side forced a replay which they then won. Some Ipswich fans would have treated their exit with indifference: ‘We can concentrate on the league now.’ The Tractor Boys have dropped from sixth to eighth since. Sunderland made six changes against Arsenal as they prioritised Premier League safety. They were defeated, and remain 19th three league games later. Brentford, Charlton and MK Dons made five, six and seven changes for their FA Cup third-round ties respectively, and the former two have lost two of their subsequent four league games. MK Dons have lost two of three. Each prioritised their league campaigns, but each remain in the same league position.
Rotation and resting players can so often work to great effect. But let’s not pretend that Premier League clubs are the only guilty party in this respect.
* On that subject, what delightful scenes to behold at Shrewsbury. While Sheffield Wednesday made their feelings clear by making nine changes for their trip to Greenhous Meadow, Town made just three and reaped the dividends.
Louis van Gaal will surely have felt the pain of Shrewsbury boss Micky Mellon in recent weeks. “People are asking for attacking football,” Mellon lamented post-match. “I cannot do any more than my right-back getting on the end of a cross in the 97th minute,” he added. Quite.
On a day for the fans to cherish, Jack Grimmer, he of one previous career goal, capped a memorable comeback for the lower-league side. With 86 minutes played, Sheffield Wednesday were 2-1 up and heading into the last 32. Shaun Whalley equalised one minute later, and Grimmer nodded home the winner seven minutes into stoppage time.
What an affirming sight. Shrewsbury are 20th in League One, battling relegation, but the FA Cup still has enough allure to ensure it is not devalued. Their reward is a fifth-round tie with Manchester United. Congratulations.
* As quickly as a young English player is built up, they will almost invariably be knocked down. Jordon Ibe is no exception to the rule.
“He’s signed a new long-term contract hasn’t he? I just hope he’s not sat on it, as in, I’ve done the hard work, I’ve got my contract, I’m playing in the team,” said former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson of the winger on Saturday. “I hope someone will say to him this is just the start. Yes you’ve earned it, but you’ve got to earn another one because it doesn’t stop here, you don’t stop learning. At the moment he seems to be making all the wrong decisions, which happens.”
Ibe appears to be caught in a purgatory of sorts at Liverpool. This is his second full season in the first team, with a handful of Championship loans also boosting his reputation. He started against West Ham as one of the more senior players among ‘the kids’ of Brad Smith, Cameron Brannagan, Kevin Stewart and Joao Teixeira, yet only Brannagan is younger. At 20, Ibe is caught between experienced head and precocious youngster, and the criticism is predictably surfacing. The only player younger than him to have made more Premier League appearances this season is Dele Alli. It’s arguable that the emergence of Raheem Sterling before him – a player he was tipped to replace when he left for Manchester City – has not helped Ibe. Sterling is a rare breed of player, almost exactly a year older than Ibe, but far advanced in his development. That is no disgrace to Ibe, who is a fine player in his own right. But he must be given time, and he must be afforded poor performances.
* What a devastating week for Stoke. Exit from the Capital One Cup at the semi-final stage on penalties was the most bitter pill to swallow. Defeat to Crystal Palace means their hope in cup competitions is brought to an abrupt halt within a matter of days.
Stoke may have rested players – Stephen Ireland still exists, you know? – but Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri were still fielded against a Crystal Palace side for whom one of their own players had not scored since late December. Wilfried Zaha’s early strike proved to be the only goal. From the brink of Wembley, with a fourth-round FA Cup berth to boot, attention now turns only to the Premier League for Stoke.
“We can have a good run at the European places (via the Premier League), we’re very much in the mix,” said Mark Hughes post-match. “We can focus on what we have left. We want to try and build on the past two seasons, which is two ninth-placed finishes. We want to go better than that.”
If they don’t go any better than that, could the short-term nature of the Premier League put Hughes’s job under threat? It certainly shouldn’t, and Stoke are still ninth with 15 games to go, and no other competitions to contend with. But his position is certainly less certain than it was this time last week.
* The FA Cup, undoubtedly the scene of Portsmouth’s most famous triumph. Under the tutelage of Harry Redknapp, Pompey secured their crowning moment with victory in the 2008 final. That same season, Bournemouth suffered relegation from League One.
Eight years later, and the tables have turned somewhat. Premier League Bournemouth were made to work for their 2-1 victory over League Two Portsmouth, but the quality proved the difference. Eventually. Eddie Howe must be credited for his game-changing double substitution, with Matt Ritchie and goalscorer Marc Pugh sent on with half an hour to play as Pompey held a 1-0 lead.
For Portsmouth, such a demoralising defeat will hopefully not take away from an excellent performance. They pushed Bournemouth – albeit a much-changed edition – to their limit, and can take renewed confidence heading into the league campaign. Nearly three years since the Pompey Supporters Trust completed their takeover of the club, Portsmouth sit sixth in League Two. They provide a reminder to Bournemouth to cherish their time at the top, however long it lasts.
* A century of touches – more than any player on the pitch – and a pass completion rate of 96% on his debut; Mohamed Elneny was made for Arsenal.
Neat, tidy and energetic, the £5million signing from Basel epitomised the club even on his first appearance. The 2-1 victory over Burnley provided Elneny with an opportunity to stake his claim.
Did he take it? Who knows. It’s impossible to say after just one game, but that is all we can analyse for now. And on his first showing, is the Egyptian not too similar to what Arsenal already have?
The clamour was for Arsene Wenger to sign a defensive midfielder. With Francis Coquelin injured since November, Arsenal’s cover in that position represented Mathieu Flamini. A willing replacement, certainly, but a quality one? Certainly not. Elneny was the midfielder Wenger signed. “He’s not a monster,” the Frenchman said this week. “Typically Middle Eastern people are very [wiry] with a big stamina and very agile. Sometimes they lack a bit of power, so he’s not a powerhouse, he’s more of a mobility player.”
Again, Elneny was made for Arsenal, but is that the problem? He was not signed as a first-team player; those roles belong to Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, with Aaron Ramsey the current stand-in. But what does Elneny offer that is different to the aforementioned three? Or Flamini, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Fitness, perhaps.
Elneny is just one game into his Arsenal career. And one promising game at that. He provided a box-to-box presence, was simple in possession, and offered something in attack. His signing is obviously not a failure, or at least cannot be labelled as such so soon, but it seems quite a strange transfer on first viewing.
* As far as days go, this was Chelsea’s finest since winning the Premier League. A start and another promising display from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a hat-trick for Oscar, an opponent willing to allow shooting practice, and Bertrand Traore scoring his first goal for the club. Champions League qualification is surely beyond the Blues, but they are not handicapped by such an abominable start in either the FA Cup or the Champions League.
And penalty or not, Eden Hazard’s first goal since the dawn of time, as well as a well-taken assist, heralds a timely confidence boost for the Belgian. The relief was palpable, not only for the player, but for his team-mates and for the travelling fans. If Chelsea are to bookmark this most terrible of campaigns with silverware, Hazard will be the key. He is quite simply their best performer.
* It’s almost impossible to envisage Louis van Gaal being sacked as Manchester United manager before the end of the season now. The latest opponent came only in the form of Championship Derby, but a victory and a positive attacking performance provide passage into the FA Cup fifth round.
This past week has perhaps been the most difficult of Van Gaal’s tenure, but the Dutchman has navigated the storm. What was statistically the worst December ever in Manchester United’s 138-year history presented the biggest threat yet, but the manager remains. Did he offer to quit after defeat to Southampton? Had he offered to quit beforehand? Has he ever offered to quit? We will perhaps never know. But Van Gaal is safe.
United are five points behind Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification. They have suffered exit from Europe’s premier competition, but the Europa League provides another opportunity to win a trophy, one only supplemented by progress in the FA Cup. Question marks persist over Van Gaal’s style and United’s performances and results, and so they should. But the Dutchman is doing just enough to keep his job, while simultaneously threatening failure. Ed Woodward will not remove the manager if United have a chance of Champions League qualification or silverware, and it seems that the club will go most of the season in such a position. Change, if and when it happens, will surely come in the summer. But if Van Gaal leaves with one year of his deal remaining, who do United go for? Pep Guardiola is seemingly destined for neighbours City, while doubts remain over the suitability of Jose Mourinho. If the Portuguese has been identified as the club’s next manager, he would have already been installed. How could United possibly justify sacking Van Gaal, a man with 30 years of managerial experience, to appoint Ryan Giggs, a man with four games of managerial experience? Better the Red Devil you know, and all that.