* The tribalism of some football supporters should not be surprising anymore, but it does remain incredibly disappointing. Here’s a newsflash that should not be required: nobody knows what Roberto Firmino said to Mason Holgate. Jonjoe Kenny’s head blocks your view, and then Holgate reacts.
There should be no rush to label anybody guilty until proven so, but nor can anyone offer a blanket defence purely based on which team somebody plays for. We should be – we have to be – better than that. Some things are far more important than the colour of a shirt.
If indeed Firmino has committed an offence, there can be no punishment too severe. Only a week ago, Rhian Brewster spoke to Daniel Taylor of the Guardian about the racist abuse he has received and the troubling lack of protection from UEFA. Liverpool supported him through that process, and would surely take a stand again if necessary.
In the club’s defence, the statement Liverpool issued immediately after the game was appropriate and important. Their reaction and response must stay this measured the whole way through this process. Having got this badly wrong once before, they cannot do so again.
* Andrew Robertson got his chance after Alberto Moreno was injured against Spartak Moscow, but he deserves to remain Liverpool’s first-choice left-back for as long as he is in this form.
As Daniel Storey wrote on Saturday morning after the Friday night before, full-backs are increasingly judged by their attacking output. Yet given the number of defensive headaches Liverpool suffer, it is worth opting for the better defender over the left-back with more pace who is more comfortable overlapping his teammates than holding off a winger.
* The rejuvenation continues. The lack of Winners and Losers this week means Jesse Lingard will not reprise his place in the former list, but his magnificent goal against Derby County on Friday means that the justified praise keeps on coming.
Lingard has now scored eight times in his last ten matches to go from fringe midfielder to key cog in Jose Mourinho’s attacking machine. His previous eight goals had come over a period of 15 months, and half of those had been in the EFL Cup.
There is something very enjoyable about watching a player suddenly full of confidence. Lingard is demanding the ball at every opportunity, taking on his man rather than opting for the pass and attempting shots where previously he might have chosen to allow teammates to do the same. More importantly, those shots are going in.
* One of the biggest gripes of Newcastle supporters with Alan Pardew (and in turn Mike Ashley) is that the club sacrificed success in the cup competitions. Yet under Rafael Benitez, not much had changed. Newcastle did get to the EFL Cup fifth round last season, but lost 3-0 to Oxford United in the FA Cup and were eliminated by Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup second round in August.
Benitez’s pre-match comments were hardly optimistic either. “Newcastle United Football Club is a massive club, but now we are newly-promoted and just here in the Premier League with massive problems because we have to stay up,” he said. “That is the priority and the money is so big now that if you don’t stay in the Premier League, you lose £100million already. We have to stay in the Premier League.”
Yet any fears of an upset against League Two Luton Town were blown away in the first half. Benitez picked a full-strength team to the surprise of the home crowd, and Newcastle were understandably far too good for Luton. Take the Magpies to Wembley and the club will have a statue paid for by supporters.
* The only downside for Newcastle was the injury sustained by captain Jamaal Lascelles. A few supporters on social media moaned that he should not have been risked, which is proof enough that football managers really cannot win.
Still, for all the positivity of cup progression and a dominant victory, Lascelles’ absence for any extended period of time would be a huge blow to Newcastle. They have conceded goals at a rate of exactly three per game this season without him but only 0.83 per game with him, and have not won a match he hasn’t started since last May.
* The BBC’s decision to screen Fleetwood vs Leicester made sense given the obvious Jamie Vardy connection. Vardy left Fleetwood in non-league and eventually fired his new side to the Premier League title. Whatever you think of the man, it’s a heck of a story.
Unfortunately, Vardy was not able to recover in time from his recent injury, and thus the Jamie Vardy derby involved him sitting in the stand with his wife and children while a dismal football match took place in front of him and us.
Still, at least the BBC still used their ‘THE RETURN’ montage. Shame to waste it.
* A list of things that Mark Hughes likely blamed for losing to Coventry City:
His key players
His non-key players
Season Affective Disorder
The concept of shame
* The sacking of any manager is a two-part decision. Not only must a club consider the performance of the current incumbent, but also his likely replacement. One of the apparent reasons for Stoke’s delay in sacking Hughes was that all of the typical firefighters were either employed (Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Roy Hodgson) or had previously managed the club (Tony Pulis).
That hints at a lack of imagination on Stoke’s part, but you can also see their point. With the club in the relegation zone in the Premier League, this is hardly the time for rolling the dice. We have seen what happened to Bob Bradley and Frank de Boer at Swansea and Crystal Palace respectively. Courage is to be respected, but it can easily blow up in your face.
Instead, Stoke gave Hughes every chance to turn things around but eventually had to concede that sticking with him was untenable. After a manager is sacked there are usually senior players who concede that the playing staff must take the blame, but you will find few defending their departing manager. This has been in the post for some time.
As it stands, Stoke have Gary Rowett and Martin O’Neill in their sights. You cannot blame them for trying to play it safe.
* Sergio Aguero has made little secret of his unhappiness at Manchester City. He understandably believes that his talent merits him being the first-choice striker, while Pep Guardiola prefers Gabriel Jesus. The manager inherited Aguero, but signed Jesus.
Yet with the latter injured for two months and City thus in need of a striker, Aguero is back in from the cold. He and his manager may not quite see eye to eye, but Aguero’s stellar form will be needed if City are to succeed in the FA Cup and Champions League as well as the Premier League.
As far as Aguero is concerned, the next two months are about proving his manager wrong. If he can play the role that Guardiola requires while leading City’s attack, he has the chance to keep his place.
The marriage has to work, even if the love has dimmed. Scoring twice against Burnley is a more than acceptable start.
* Chelsea’s relative striker struggles continue. It would be unfair to scapegoat Alvaro Morata, a young player who has scored 12 goals in his first season as a regular for a Champions League team in a completely new country. Yet performances like his against Arsenal, where he spurned numerous chances to turn one point into three, do pile on the pressure in this fickle game.
Morata has scored one goal in his last five Premier League games, but the issue Chelsea face is that he has no viable back-up, no worthy alternative aside from playing Eden Hazard as a false nine.
In theory, they have the perfect candidate. Michy Batshuayi is young, hungry and talented, but his opportunities come and go with worrying speed. He has been able to rely on goals against lower-league opposition in the domestic cups previously, but failed to breach Norwich’s Championship defence.
He was substituted on 74 minutes, replaced by Morata. If only Chelsea were able to fuse Batshuayi’s finishing with Morata’s movement. They have the ingredients to the perfect striker, but not yet the recipe.
* Perhaps there is something in the drinking water supplied to reserve strikers in London. Batshuayi’s Stamford Bridge struggles have undoubtedly been greater, but Fernando Llorente’s time in north London has been thoroughly underwhelming thus far.
The Spaniard seemed the ideal back-up for Harry Kane: a proven striker who, while incapable of scoring at anywhere near a similar rate, could offer more in terms of hold-up play. He could, at the very least, provide something different.
Mauricio Pochettino started them both as a strike partnership against Wimbledon, but Tottenham could only find the breakthrough when one was substituted. Son Heung-min replaced Llorente on 59 minutes at 0-0, and Tottenham were 2-0 up six minutes later through Kane’s double.
Wimbledon’s resistance crumbled thereafter, Jan Vertonghen adding a third, but Llorente will know Sunday’s result and performance reflects as badly on him as it does positively on anyone else.
* Saturday, January 6, 2018 was a truly momentous day in football. And no, not because Barcelona signed Philippe Coutinho for the second-highest transfer fee ever paid.
Against Exeter City, Salomon Rondon and Jay Rodriguez both scored for West Brom. It was only the second time since a 3-2 home defeat to Leicester in October 2015 that two West Brom strikers have scored in the same match.
Football365, giving you the sort of facts that will impress people at the office on Monday.
* We have already been denied one of the staples of the FA Cup this season. For the first time in an age, there were no non-league clubs left in the FA Cup at the third-round stage. After the success of Lincoln City last season, that’s a huge shame.
Still, that only means we must look slightly higher for our fairy tales. Yeovil Town were the lowest-ranked team left in the competition, currently 21st in League Two, and they knocked out Bradford City of League One at Huish Park. With Notts County winning at Brentford, Coventry City beating Stoke and Newport knocking out Leeds, the lower leagues still have some fight left.
* Kevin Nolan’s first job in management could not have come in more difficult circumstances, appointed by Leyton Orient halfway through a collapse that may not yet have come to an end. Yet at Notts County he is establishing a reputation as a Premier League manager of the future. His team are second in League Two and beat Championship Brentford at Griffin Park.
While the likes of Ryan Giggs continue to doubt the idea of dropping down the leagues to get vital experience and thus stay in suspension, Nolan is the antidote to that arrogance. At the age of just 35, he has 70 games under his belt and has won 36 of them. County will face a fight to keep hold of him beyond the end of this season.
* It was back in March 2014 when Javier Hernandez first publicly aired his views against David Moyes. The striker stated that he was excited to play for his country in an upcoming international break as “my club don’t take me much into account”.
Three-and-a-half years later, and Hernandez and Moyes have formed an unhappy union once more. The Mexican was handed his third start in all competitions since the Scot’s appointment in November, but failed to have an impact in the goalless draw against Shrewsbury.
Alan Shearer highlighted at half-time the lack of support Hernandez is receiving as a lone striker, charged with winning knockdowns for players 20 yards away from him. It is a gameplan designed for Andy Carroll, not a goal poacher whose hold-up play leaves plenty to be desired.
The 29-year-old has now scored nine goals in 40 games in all competitions under Moyes at Manchester United and West Ham, and four goals in 21 in the Premier League. The Hammers’ search for a reliable striker goes on.
* A rare positive on a drab afternoon for West Ham was the display of Declan Rice. The midfielder was calm, assured and professional when many of his teammates shirked their responsibilities in unfashionable surroundings.
The Hammers will continue to target a central midfielder in January, and so they should, but it will hopefully not come at the expense of a promising young player. The 18-year-old has featured at centre-half, right and left-back and in midfield this season, and has been one of the true positive aspects of Moyes’ reign thus far. It would be criminal to take Rice off the boil now.
Daniel Storey and Matt Stead