Game to watch – Swansea City vs Tottenham
Champions League exit at the hands of Juventus should, as we tried to insist, not be treated as disaster for Tottenham. They were facing last season’s finalists, and the game was lost in its final throes. Unlike Manchester United, Tottenham were not guilty of tactical cowardice but inexperience.
Still, those insisting that experience only comes with winning trophies have more ammunition, and thus the FA Cup does become significant for Tottenham. They have not won the competition since 1991, and have not reached the final in that time. That is a significant failure, given that 20 different clubs have reached the final since.
This really could be their year of change. Tottenham have received favourable draws against League Two (Newport County) and League One (AFC Wimbledon and Rochdale) sides to reach the quarter-final. Of the eight teams left in the competition, only Southampton and Wigan are ranked lower than Swansea. This isn’t an easy tie, but then nor should it be when you play FA Cup games in March.
Saturday lunchtime’s game took on extra significance after the events of last Sunday. Harry Kane has been ruled out for at least a month, meaning Pochettino must choose whether to play the in-form Heung-min Son as a centre forward, or pick Fernando Llorente against his old club and use Son wide on the left.
Son covered superbly for Kane at the start of the season, but playing without their best striker evidently presents a challenge. Kane is so dominant in Tottenham’s attack (he has had 31.4% of their shots in the Premier League), that his able supporting cast must adapt without him.
With Carlos Carvalhal’s Swansea City on a run of seven consecutive home victories, scoring 21 times and conceding just four, this is by far the sternest test of Tottenham’s FA Cup campaign thus far. Suffer two cup exits in a fortnight and the doubters will sharpen their pencils and clear their throats again.
Player to watch – Wilfried Zaha
Roy Hodgson is a humble man, and so he might well be happy to accept that Crystal Palace’s chances of staying up do not depend on his own expertise. It was his influence and acumen that turned the ship around after the dismal start to the season, but now it’s all on Wilfried Zaha.
Zaha has failed to start ten Premier League games this season. Palace have lost all ten, scoring goals at a rate of 0.4 per game and conceding them at a rate of 2.3 per game. They have only lost five matches in all competitions that he has started this season, and the last league match the club won without him was in September 2016 against Sunderland. They’ve had three new managers since then.
Against Chelsea last weekend, Zaha came back from injury after half-time. Despite playing only 45 minutes, he created more chances than any other Palace player and attempted more dribbles too. It is no coincidence that Palace won the second half 1-0.
Now fit enough to start, Palace need Zaha to produce again. They have taken two points from seven league games during their injury crisis to fall back into the bottom three and into trouble. Defeat away at Huddersfield would increase the suspicion that this redemption story has run out of steam before the happy ending.
Zaha-inspired victory would prolong the hope that Palace can escape the drop once again. Zaha is already a hero at this club. Time to make himself a legend.
Manager to watch – Jose Mourinho
“Liverpool are in to the next phase of the tournament? Yes, this is true, but they do not have the FA Cup either,” Mourinho told BT Sport after Manchester United’s calamitous Champions League exit. “We still have the top four in the league to fight for and the FA Cup too so it’s not the end of the world. It is disappointing but it happens. I don’t want to make a drama of it. That’s football.”
That might be football, but money has changed football and managers like Jose Mourinho are supposed to use that money to change football clubs. With a top-four place virtually sealed but the season clouded in backward steps in other competitions, the FA Cup remains Mourinho’s only hope of saving face. His job is not on the line, because United placed their eggs in his basket with the contract extension, but Mourinho’s pride certainly is.
Mourinho is fortunate that he was given the easiest draw of all the three remaining top-six sides left in the FA Cup, and a Brighton team with eyes on securing their Premier League safety should be swatted aside without too much fuss. But the same was said about Sevilla.
The bigger question is how Manchester United supporters will respond to their manager after he used his post-match press conference to defend himself by criticising the club. He cannot afford to have already entered his final-days mode where everyone and everything other than his own ego becomes a target; a return to form at home is a must. Hint: They probably want you to try and attack, Jose.
Team to watch – Stoke City
Paul Lambert would probably like us to focus on his record of two defeats in seven Premier League games during his brief tenure – and one of those was at the hands of Manchester City. Unfortunately, the more significant statistic is that the Scot took over a side in 18th place, and that team is now in 19th.
For all Lambert’s success in tightening up Stoke’s defence, they have scored three goals in their last six matches. They have not improved enough since Mark Hughes’ exit to provoke optimism, and Hughes’ appointment by Southampton creates the unsavoury possibility of their old manager relegating their new one.
This weekend, Stoke host an Everton side that has lost its last six away games and conceded 16 times in the process. Three points is an absolute must to put pressure on the teams around them who have the weekend off.
One-on-one battle to watch – Mohamed Salah vs Jose Holebas
There isn’t much secret to Watford’s recent form. They have won four of their last five home games, including victories over Chelsea, Everton and West Brom, but have taken one point from eight away league games and scored twice in the process. Liverpool supporters heading to Anfield on Saturday teatime should be giggling at the prospect.
Mohamed Salah struggled against Manchester United. It was the first time since December 13 that he has failed to have a shot on target in a Liverpool game, shackled by Ashley Young. Jose Holebas might well be the victim of a forward motivated to make amends.
Holebas is an eminently watchable full-back, and that’s both compliment and insult. In 65 league games in England, the Greece international has been booked 21 times. Only James McClean and Harry Arter have picked yellow cards up at a quicker rate in the Premier League over that time.
He also likes to get forward. Only Abdoulaye Doucoure has created more chances than Holebas for Watford this season (35 vs 31), and Doucoure has played 900 more minutes. His total of 70 crosses is by far the highest at the club.
Which is all very well, but against Salah Holebas surely needs to be a defensive left-back rather than an attacking one. We could be in for an interesting spectacle.
Football League game to watch – Fulham vs QPR
The FA Cup weekend (and thus reduced Premier League programme) makes this a bumper few days of Championship football on Sky Sports. Bolton host Aston Villa (who are now on television every week) and Derby face the ludicrously in-form Cardiff, but Saturday’s London derby is the recommended fare.
In any other season, Fulham’s run of victories would have taken them into the automatic promotion places. Over their last ten games, Slavisa Jokanovic’s team have dropped just four points. Unfortunately for them, so too have Neil Warnock’s Cardiff. The gap is still eight points and there are only nine games remaining.
What makes it all the more interesting is that Wolves are suffering a mini-wobble too. Two wins in their last six games (over struggling Leeds and Reading) and defeats to two of the top four have left the door ajar. Three more wins in nine games should be enough for promotion to be secured, though.
With Cardiff at Derby – who are fifth – on Sunday, Fulham have the chance to up the ante again on Warnock’s side, and hope that, finally, they succumb to the pressure. First they must beat a QPR team that humped Aston Villa at Villa Park on Tuesday. The Championship is baffling but magnificent.
European game to watch – Marseille vs Lyon
A huge game in Ligue 1, or ‘Choc des Olympiques’, as Wikipedia informs me. Every day is a school day.
French football only gets three Champions League spots, and one of those is forever destined to go to Paris Saint-Germain. If four (Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea) don’t go into three in England, three (Monaco, Marseille and Lyon) don’t go into two in France.
Marseille and Lyon currently sit astride that line between success and disappointment, and face each other at the Stade Vélodrome on Sunday evening. A draw keeps Marseille five points clear of their opponents with eight games to play, and with Monaco and PSG both faced twice in the league already. Lyon looked good for the final Champions League spot, but took three points from six league games before the cagey home win over Caen last weekend. That run allowed Marseille to move ahead of them in the table.
The rivalry is such that in September 2015 a game between the two was interrupted for 20 minutes due to the sheer number of glass bottles thrown at Mathieu Valbuena for leaving Marseille for Lyon. Keep it pleasant, lads.
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey