Game to watch – Leicester v Fleetwood
Like an ill-timed joke to ruin the moment just before a first kiss, humour pretty much always trumps romance. Which is why the BBC billing Leicester’s FA Cup third-round visit to Fleetwood as ‘THE RETURN’ of Jamie Vardy, only for the striker to be sidelined through injury, was met with fits of derisive laughter.
The desperation to catch sight of Vardy in the Highbury Stadium stands was understandable, such was the lack of apparent quality his side displayed. Leicester started Adrien Silva, Demarai Gray and Islam Slimani, but failed to register a single shot on target in a drab 0-0 draw.
“We had a good team on the pitch but it was not enough from the play,” said Claude Puel after the stalemate, and the Frenchman now faces a conundrum: trust those same players to take a second chance, or risk starting more first-teamers.
From the outside looking in, it is an easy decision. Leicester are eighth, closer in terms of points to Arsenal in sixth (8) than the relegation zone (11). They are in absolutely no danger of going down, such is the comparative lack of quality in the teams beneath them. They should surely take the FA Cup seriously as a chance to add further silverware to their collection.
But Puel will know better than anyone the difficulty in striking the delicate balance. He was sacked for finishing eighth and reaching a cup final with Southampton, so could see the opportunity to climb further up the Premier League table as more desirable.
Either way, Leicester should have plenty enough to dispatch a side 11th in League One in front of their home fans. The Foxes were unfortunate not to beat Chelsea, and, unlike in the first game, should have Vardy back among their ranks. The reunion might only have been delayed instead of cancelled.
Player to watch – Ross Barkley
Plenty has changed for Ross Barkley since he last started a competitive game. He has moved clubs, spent time under four different managers, been removed from the England picture and seen his value drop £20m since he scored the only goal for Everton in a 1-0 win over Watford in May of last year. Seven months later, his debut for Chelsea is finally on the horizon.
“He is working very hard and I think that maybe the next game against Norwich, he could be available, in contention,” Antonio Conte said on Friday. “I hope so. He is not ready 100 per cent, but I think he can start to help us for the rest of the season.”
Preparation. ⚽️🙌🏻 pic.twitter.com/miUi2jYqlR
— Ross Barkley (@RBarkley20) January 9, 2018
Tuesday heralds Barkley’s new beginning, the first chapter of his fresh start. The midfielder felt his journey with Everton had come to an end, that all but one of his bridges had been burned and only the one leading to Stamford Bridge was left standing. This is the hard reset that his career sorely needed.
To expect Barkley to hit the ground running at Chelsea instantly would be to ignore the difficulties, both mental and physical, of returning after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Patience would ordinarily be afforded to a new player in such circumstances, but the Blues are suffering something of a shortage of inspiration. For the first time in their history, the champions have drawn three consecutive games 0-0.
Alvaro Morata’s problems are well-documented, but Chelsea’s midfield has become an issue. Tiemoue Bakayoko has not adapted since his summer arrival, Cesc Fabregas is struggling to reach his creative peak, and Danny Drinkwater is yet to fully recover from his own injury. The role beside N’Golo Kante is yet to be truly seized, and Barkley has every chance of making it his own.
Conte has used eight different midfield combinations in 23 Premier League games this season, ranging from Kante and Fabregas to David Luiz, Kante and Bakayoko. None has stuck, so Barkley has an opportunity to stake his claim against Norwich. One of England’s forgotten next big things embarks on the road to a return to relevance.
Team to watch – Sheffield Wednesday
The tendency for footballers to be surprised and impressed at the smallest alterations made by a new manager never fails to amuse. “There has been a few changes, with the double sessions and a few meetings,” Sheffield Wednesday defender Daniel Pudil said last week. “We had also been watching a few videos of our set-pieces.”
Quite what Carlos Carvalhal was doing towards the end of his two-year tenure at Hillsborough, no-one knows. But replacement Jos Luhukay has already established a reputation as a regimented, hard-working manager who sees organisation as the key to success. Sometimes a simple change of scenery – and a couple of team meetings – is enough to elicit improvement.
That much was clear from the Dutchman’s first game in charge, a 0-0 draw with promotion-chasing rivals Sheffield United. The Blades were restricted to two shots on target as the Owls debuted a new formation. It takes a brave coach to overhaul a playing system so soon, never mind in such an intense derby. But Wednesday were much improved with a three-man defence, even after Glenn Loovens’ second-half red card.
It was a promising first step in English football for Luhukay. The 54-year-old has entered his 20th year as a manager, and will be tasked with living up to his ‘promotion expert’ moniker in South Yorkshire. But his next assignment will be rather more uncelebrated. Wednesday would do well to use their third-round replay with League Two Carlisle to build momentum for the push towards Championship safety.
Manager to watch – Steve Evans
In truth, either outcome from Mansfield’s third-round replay with Cardiff presents a mouthwatering prospect. If Pep Guardiola is not forced to share a bottle of Lidl’s finest wine with Neil Warnock, the Spaniard will be tasked with listening to Steve Evans refer to himself in the third person for half an hour. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for either encounter.
The thought of Cardiff elongating an unfathomable season by setting up a date with the Premier League leaders is quite something. But those pretending that a meeting of the minds of Evans and Guardiola would not be potentially cataclysmic are kidding themselves. One is a coaching revolutionary, a once-in-a-lifetime talent whose teachings will be passed down through generations; the other is bald and Spanish.
We're one Mansfield win away from Steve Evans vs Pep Guardiola. Please, please make this happen #facup
— Glenn Ebrey (@glennebrey) January 8, 2018
It has been something of a mixed season for Evans at the One Call Stadium. The Stags started the campaign as pre-season favourites to win the League Two title, but are ten points off the pace of leaders Luton after 27 games. They are firmly entrenched in the race for the play-offs however, as one of nine clubs from third to 11th separated by five points.
A 0-0 draw with Cambridge was a disappointing result on Saturday, although they have now tasted defeat just twice in their last 20 games. Yet Evans has only one thing on his mind.
“Come on – if your granny’s not been out for a while, bring her here,” he said on Monday. “I’m sure she’s got Mansfield right through the middle of her. Or bring your grandad. Let’s have a sell-out in the home end. Let’s make sure there’s not a spare seat in the home end. Let the kids have a late day to school. We need the stadium rocking and rolling.”
If Steve Evans advocates depriving your children of education, you listen. If Steve Evans requests that you subject the elderly to bitter January evening colds, you acquiesce. If Steve Evans wants to take little old Mansfield Town into an FA Cup fourth-round clash with big old Manchester City, the football gods had better make it so.
One-on-one battle to watch – Josh Cullen v Abu Ogogo
In a completely toothless performance, it was Josh Cullen who paid the biggest price. The 21-year-old will forever have his full West Ham domestic debut etched in the memory, if only for Abu Ogogo’s DIY dental services.
Cullen had featured for the Hammers before the FA Cup draw with Shrewsbury just over a week ago. Slaven Bilic gave him two starts in their failed 2015/16 Europa League campaign, while his Premier League career to date spans one minute as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Liverpool in August 2015.
The midfielder will see a place on the bench as a sign of progress under David Moyes. Cullen started the season gaining valuable experience at Bolton, and was expected to return to the struggling Championship side after being briefly recalled by Moyes this month. Plans may well have changed after the Scot described Cullen as “probably our best player” against the Shrews.
That Cullen featured for the Hammers reduces his options for the rest of the season. He cannot join another loan club, so either must stay at West Ham or return to Bolton until the summer. An impressive display in his first game under Moyes should at least afford him the opportunity to show Ogogo that West Ham do not lack bite.
European game to watch – Espanyol v Barcelona
Ernesto Valverde described it as a “beautiful, attractive” tie, but one with a “reduced” chance of qualification. The gap between Barcelona and Espanyol in La Liga is 27 points, but the window has been left ajar for form books to be tossed out.
This is a Copa del Rey derby, and Barcelona have trophies in their sights. Their nearest challengers in La Liga, Atletico Madrid, are nine points behind. Manchester City’s defeat to Liverpool leaves them as the last remaining unbeaten side in Europe’s top five leagues this season, while Chelsea await in the Champions League.
Since losing both legs of the Supercopa de Espana to Real Madrid, Barca have gone 29 games unbeaten. They are Europe’s form team, and Luis Suarez is treating every game like he is facing the Spanish equivalent of Norwich and John Ruddy. A two-legged quarter-final with Espanyol is next, as Valverde and his troops aim to keep their Treble dreams alive.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead