FA Cup fifth round: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Monday 20th February 2017 1:00

* Almost throughout this FA Cup competition, the Mail on Sunday’s Oliver Holt has expressed his disappointment at the lack of full-strength teams picked by Premier League clubs. Of course, it would be nice if every club chose their best team for every round, but to suggest that their failure to do so somehow tempered the enjoyment of the victors is surely misguided?

It feels like we’ve had to write this at the end of every round, but again: The FA Cup is probably not as loved as it once was, but that applies to a great deal of our social customs of the 20th century. It’s also still loved by a huge number of clubs and an even greater number of people. You would have to be deliberately ignoring joy to focus on the negative aspects of Lincoln’s win at Burnley.

 

* Joey Barton is still a weapon. That’s hardly news, but considering how clever he thinks he is, he’d be seething if he had sufficient self-awareness to recognise that he was outsmarted by Lincoln’s ‘big man’ Matthew Rhead.

Lincoln’s number nine looks like the archetypal non-league centre-forward: almost as wide as he is tall. Michael Keane and James Tarkowski weren’t rattled by Rhead’s physical presence, but when the Imps’ frontman dropped deeper into Barton’s territory, the pair engaged in a physical battle that was the single intriguing element of the first hour.

Pat Nevin on 5Live said “there is a plan to wind Barton up and it worked”, but I doubt Lincoln boss Danny Cowley wasted much time pre-match coming up with such a ploy. The Lincoln players won’t need to have been told. A couple of robust challenges rattled Barton and he couldn’t let it go. Rather than consider the supposed gulf in quality between him and his opponents, Barton couldn’t help himself. Despite denying it, he was snide and tried to get Rhead sent off but only succeeded in embarrassing himself.

After the final whistle, it was only a matter of time before Barton took to Twitter, and even then, he couldn’t help but try to leave one on his opponents.

Barton has kept his nose clean since rejoining Burnley last month, so the furore around him this weekend is probably overdue. “Drive and energy” is what Sean Dyche expected from Barton upon bringing him back to the club, but a week after going toe-to-toe with Kante and Matic, he channelled his efforts in the wrong direction here. Barton was rattled, his focus slipped and his side were outwitted by a team 81 places below them in the football pyramid.

 

* Barton won’t be the only subject of Dyche’s anger. As the manager said pre-match: “I don’t do rotation. I’ve picked a team to win the game.” Against a non-league side, it was a reasonable expectation.

Dyche personally watched Lincoln’s 3-2 win over Woking last week, unlike the managers of the Imps’ previous conquests, Brighton and Ipswich. The Burnley boss knew exactly what to expect and his selection reflected that.

Burnley’s spine (Heaton-Keane-Barton-Westwood-Gray) was the one that held Chelsea and possibly deserved more last week, but after rising to the challenge of the leaders, Dyche’s players dropped to the level of their non-league opponents. The manager cannot be accused of underestimating Lincoln; he was let down by the players he placed his faith in.

 

* Burnley’s XI was actually more settled than most. They and Middlesbrough both made six changes as the Premier Legaue outfits struggled against lower-league opponents, while Manchester City opted for eight changes at Huddersfield, who themselves made seven.

Leicester’s team consisted of 10 changes from last week’s defeat at Swansea, with Demarai Gray the sole survivor. The Foxes players should have had more motivation than most given places in Claudio Ranieri’s first XI appear to be up for grabs, but again they failed to rise to the occasion.

All the Premier League sides, to varying degrees, suffered for rotation. You would expect any player coming into a team to be eager to prove a point, but does that motivation dip when they expect to be out of the picture again once the Premier League is back?

That certainly shouldn’t have been a factor for Leicester. They go to Sevilla in the Champions League on Wednesday, with Ranieri already having said that he had given too many of his supposed favourites too many chances. A decent display at Millwall could feasibly have seen them rewarded with a starting spot for the trip to Spain. As it is, Ranieri will probably have to persist with the players that have failed him so often of late.

 

* “After the red card they played better than us, with more desire and heart and deserved to win. When we have the opportunity to go to the next round, we have to win. We have to show desire. I gave a great opportunity to my players.”

Ranieri ripped into one half of his squad last week and the rest on Saturday. The fringe players’ lack of fight reflects most poorly on those individuals, but the Leicester owners will also take a dim view of the manager’s inability to motivate his squad.

Some may say that Ranieri deserves a job for life after last season’s accomplishments but something has to change quickly if they are to avoid relegation and it looks like coming down to a choice between the players or the manager. We all know how that one ends, and Ranieri knows better than most.

 

* One of those eight Manchester City changes included a recall for Claudio Bravo. Given every other Premier League team played their ‘cup keeper’ (with the exception of Burnley, who intended to until Nick Pope picked up a knock on Thursday), the Chilean will be well aware of his slide in status.

But it was a positive afternoon for Bravo. Unsurprisingly, his distribution was flawless but the former Barca stopper denied Huddersfield with a number of saves, ending his unfortunate recent run. He had failed to keep out the last six shots on target he had faced before the weekend, a spell stretching back to January 2.

Pep Guardiola will feel he will be able to justify Bravo’s inclusion for the Champions League clash with Monaco on Wednesday. Whether he does or not will tell the keeper a lot more about his standing than his selection on Saturday.

 

* Two of Guardiola’s other inclusions, Nolito and Jesus Navas, would have been well aware that the bench will be beckoning again after their trip across the Pennines to the John Smith’s Stadium.

They played like it. Nolito is said to have left Guardiola unimpressed with his performances in training of late and that lack of application appears to have taken its toll.

Navas was on the periphery throughout in West Yorkshire. He won’t get many more opportunities to convince Guardiola he has a future and his time at the club appears to be coming to an end.

 

* Boro’s changes appeared not to have hampered them at all, with Aitor Karanka this week discussing how positive a trip to Wembley would be for the club. The hosts were deservedly cruising at the break, 2-0 up and in no danger. But Oxford refused to lie down and staged a fine comeback after a half-time rollocking from Michael Appleton.

It all worked out in the end, but that might not be the case come the end of the season should they ever have to do without Ben Gibson. His stand-in, Daniel Ayala, looked edgy throughout, which is perhaps understandable given he hasn’t played since being sent off in the third-round win over Sheffield Wednesday. His partner, Bernardo Espinosa, was even more suspect against the League One side.

 

* I’m struggling to keep up – is Chris Smalling bad again now? Or is it just that he doesn’t look secure when he’s asked to do some defending? Or is he still good?

One thing is for sure: If you get skinned by Danny Graham, you shouldn’t be starting your national team’s next match. Sorry son, those are the rules.

 

* Because there’s nothing quite as clever as tweeting a racist joke for numbers, is there?

Somebody genuinely considered that to be acceptable. World’s f*cked, folks.

 

* Millwall showed the kind of desire you would expect as they outfought Leicester even with a one-man disadvantage. It was another day to remember for the League One side, following their dramatic fourth-round victory over Watford.

You can understand if Neil Harris was reluctant for anything to detract from another giantkilling, but the scenes that followed the final whistle, with the Millwall fans on the pitch, goading and reportedly throwing missiles at the Leicester fans, have to be condemned.

“No-one wants to see that on the football pitch. I can’t condone that, but if I have not seen it I am not going to say anything negative because you have to see something to make a realistic judgement.

“What I will say is my players were excellent today and our fans were brilliant during the 90 minutes.”

Not condoning it is certainly not the same as condemning it. Only the most joyless prude would criticise fans too heavily for spilling on to the pitch after a cup triumph, but again Millwall fans’ behaviour went beyond what is acceptable. Most of it was for show – the thin line of security in front of the Leicester fans never looked like being breached – but it takes very little for things to develop into something more threatening.

The authorities may punish Millwall but it is water off a duck’s back. Until someone from within the club – one of their own – takes a stand, it will continue until such a time it escalates out of control and it’s too late. That will take a braver individual than the dozens of ‘hard men’ hiding behind the stewards.

 

* In making Diego Costa our early loser last week, it was suggested the Chelsea striker needed a breather. Costa had gone four games without scoring, 195 minutes without a shot on target, and his influence had certainly waned following the reported fall-out with Antonio Conte.

The Chelsea boss made seven changes, with all those coming in having a point to prove, even if they expect to be out of the picture again when Swansea visit next week. But Costa was retained, and it was the right call.

The centre forward looked more like his old self, taking the fight to Wolves centre-halves Danny Batth and Kortney Hause, who gave as good as they got until Costa’s class eventually told, when he played a role in Chelsea’s opener before sealing the win with a clinical finish late on.

 

* Costa’s performance may come as a relief to Conte but, having admitted to having sleepless nights over failing to find a place in his first XI for Cesc Fabregas, the manager certainly won’t be resting any easier this week.

Sitting alongside Nathaniel Chalobah, Fabregas was at the heart of everything for Chelsea, with more touches, more key passes, more through balls and more crosses than anyone on the pitch. That Costa’s improvement came with the Spaniard’s presence was no coincidence. Conte compared Fabregas to Andrea Pirlo last week and watching him in the deep-lying playmaker role, it was a fair likeness, albeit against Championship opposition

N’Golo Kante is undroppable and Nemanja Matic deserves his place, but so too does Fabregas. Conte will always look for more steel against Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest of their direct rivals, but Fabregas would be justified in feeling aggrieved if he finds himself back on the bench when Swansea arrive at Stamford Bridge next Saturday.

 

* Is a quick throw-in one of football’s most underrated weapons? On Monday, Manchester City carved out a glorious chance after Bournemouth were caught sleeping when the ball went out of play, and on Sunday Tottenham scored their opening goal as a result of Kieran Trippier’s quick thinking. Christian Eriksen spotted the opportunity and made the run behind left-back Fulham Scott Malone, and his cross allowed Harry Kane to stab home.

A throw-in is typically treated as an opportunity for players to catch their breath, particularly when they are won in the middle third of the pitch. Would a manager who instructed his attackers to be most alert at these moment be able to create extra chances to score?

 

* Mauricio Pochettino’s team selection after the trip to Belgium on Thursday told you plenty about Tottenham’s need for a victory. Had Spurs won 2-0 against Gent, he may have rewarded those first-team players with a weekend rest. As it stands, the FA Cup now represents Tottenham’s best chance of a trophy this season.

Pochettino’s decision was vindicated with a ruthless performance against Fulham, the hosts left still rather than sparkling. The BBC were obviously hopeful of a shock to match BT Sport’s victory for Lincoln City, but the Championship side hardly landed a punch. Kane scored the 97th, 98th and 99th goals of his club career, and his fifth hat-trick.

It will be interesting to see if Pochettino chooses to pick an equally strong side against Gent on Thursday at Wembley, thus aiming to compete in three competitions, or sacrifices Europa League participation for an FA Cup run and addressing any possible fatigue in the Premier League. They’re two wins away from another FA Cup final.

 

* Your Dad might have a list of 5,284 reasons why football is broken, but there is something pretty incredible about a Championship manager describing a £13m signing as a bargain.

“He’s a big talent and what he’s done in English football in a short space of time has been incredible,” Lambert said of one Helder Costa. “In time that fee will be buttons to what his value will be. It was there for the club to do and it was the right thing for the club to do because he’s been such an influential player for the team. To be fair the amount of money we’ve spent on him in the modern-day game is not vast.”

The Wolves forward unsurprisingly still struggles for consistency, but he is far and away Wolves’ most capable player. Whether or not that fee does proves to be “buttons” probably depends on his club’s ability to pull themselves away from an unlikely relegation battle, but the 23-year-old might not be at Wolves for long.

Against Chelsea, and faced with Pedro as a surprise left wing-back, Costa shone. He is emphatically one-footed, dribbling down the right wing before cutting back onto his left foot in Arjen Robben fashion, but contains plenty enough skill to perform at a far higher level. You have to wonder whether Wolves will be anything other than a stepping stone.

 

Ian Watson and Daniel Storey

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