* So begins the latest Riyad Mahrez farewell tour. The only difference this time is that there will be no encore; these are surely the final months of the winger’s fruitful stay in Leicester.
If that is the case, it is a relief to see that the Algerian has recovered from his brief blip and has returned to his old self: a player determined to leave his club on the best terms possible. He was excellent in the victory over Sheffield United, laying on the winning goal for Jamie Vardy and accepting a warm welcome from the forgiving home fans. Mahrez will realise that he, the club and the supporters can all benefit if they work towards the same goal. Even just one of those parties pulling rank makes this delicate three-way relationship go sour.
* The accepted wisdom is that Mahrez will be the only key first-team player Leicester agree to sell this summer, providing any potential suitor meets their asking price. The reality is that Wilfred Ndidi’s continued upward trajectory will have already caught the eye of many a club long before the transfer window reopens.
The midfielder’s obvious skill is tackling, but he has slowly refined another aspect of his game over the course of this season. His passing has become more crisp, more accomplished and more accurate. He recorded a pass-completion rate of under 70% in six of his first 12 appearances this season, and just once in his subsequent 19 games. It is but another string to an ever-expanding bow.
* Sheffield United fought, but Leicester were altogether too strong eventually. The Foxes deserve great credit for fielding a full-strength team (particularly when they were roundly criticised for rotating in the previous round), just as the Blades warrant praise for matching them for large swathes of the game.
The one main positive to yield from the 1-0 defeat was the return of David Brooks from glandular fever. The 20-year-old had not featured since December, and looked bright upon his introduction at half-time.
“David makes us an even stronger team,” manager Chris Wilder said after the game. “He makes what I think is an already dangerous team even more dangerous.” The Blades have lost their footing in the battle for a play-off spot, but Brooks’ return could sway things back in their favour.
* While Ethan Ampadu’s star shone brightest, he was not alone in flying the youth flag for Chelsea. The Premier League champions swept Hull aside in emphatic fashion, with Kyle Scott (20) and Callum Hudson-Odoi (17) also given opportunities to impress from the bench.
Chelsea have handed exactly 500 minutes to teenagers in all competitions this season. By comparison, Liverpool (1,630), Arsenal (1,213) and Manchester United (988) have given theirs more game time, while Manchester City (421) and Tottenham (362) are lagging behind. Considering Antonio Conte has been accused of the same lack of faith in young players as his predecessors, that is not a bad record.
* On the one hand, Willian has scored or assisted a combined 20 goals in all competitions for Chelsea this season – more than all but Eden Hazard (24). On the other, 15 of those 20 came against Qarabag, Huddersfield, Stoke, Brighton and now Hull. There are better – and far less infuriating – players in this squad, but few more adept as a flat-track bully. And that is a compliment, not an insult.
* “We came with a game plan and within a couple of minutes it’s out of the window,” said Nigel Adkins after the 4-0 defeat. The Hull manager stopped short of naming any names, but Kevin Stewart would have needed little help in deciphering the message. He gifted Chelsea possession for their early opener, before being brushed off the ball by Olivier Giroud in the build-up to their third.
Stewart has played 317 of a possible 990 minutes in the Championship since Adkins was appointed manager in December, and Friday evening showed why. He was slow to react and unable to keep up with the tempo in the first half, exposed by a Chelsea side hungry to impress. It was no way to win over a new boss.
Liverpool sold Stewart to Hull for £8million this summer, and signed Andrew Robertson for the same initial price. There might never have been a more efficient – or inefficient, in the Tigers’ case – recent use of the transfer market.
* With Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea both fighting to stay in their respective divisions, neither particularly welcomed the prospect of adding an FA Cup replay to an already busy fixture schedule. Both made six changes on Saturday lunchtime, and the inevitable result was a rather drab, lifeless 0-0 draw.
Wednesday manager Jos Luhukay came in for criticism when a weakened Wednesday team was announced, but they were a match for their Premier League counterparts. A blunt Swansea attack was nullified and controlled with a resolute performance.
Luhukay has delivered just three wins since he was appointed manager early last month, but the progress made is undeniable. He has exponentially improved a previously troubled defence, and has laid the foundations for further building in the coming months. The switch to three at the back has brought six clean sheets in his nine games; Wednesday kept six in 29 under Carlos Carvalhal earlier this season.
* In the Hillsborough stands was Gareth Southgate, most likely there to cast a watchful eye over the development of Swansea centre-half Alfie Mawson. It might well have felt like a wasted journey when the 24-year-old suffered an injury in the warm-up and was removed from the starting line-up.
It did provide the England manager a chance to watch Tammy Abraham closely, and the striker hardly shone in the spotlight. He did not have a single shot, and created only one chance against a defence featuring George Boyd at left wing-back.
Abraham scored five goals and assisted one in 14 games in all competitions before his first England cap on November 10; he has now scored two and assisted two – all against Notts County – in 16 games since. He fared better with the carrot dangled in front of him than placed directly into his mouth. Anyone still think Chelsea made a mistake loaning him out? This guy did. Laugh at him.
* For the second time this season, and only the third time since February, Brighton are unbeaten in five games in all competitions. A routine victory over Coventry hands them an FA Cup quarter-final berth for the first time since 1986.
Chris Hughton will take pleasure in a run of form that has included five Premier League points, but the most encouraging aspect is that Brighton are finding the net again. They scored three goals in a game just twice from August to January; they have done so as many times in the past fortnight. If club-record signing Jurgen Locadia and Leonardo Ulloa can maintain some form of consistency, no other side battling relegation has a more potent strikeforce.
* It was a valiant effort from Coventry, and although defeat represents the end of their FA Cup journey, their season is not over. Manager Mark Robins spoke of “trying to finish the season on a positive” after seeing his side enjoy the better of the second half against Brighton, and the Sky Blues will hope to carry that level of performance into their league form.
When Coventry beat MK Dons in the FA Cup fourth round, three points separated them from the final automatic promotion spot in League Two. Since reaching the fifth round, they have lost three of four games, and are now 12 points off the pace. A strong showing against Premier League opposition provides a valuable opportunity to refocus.
* From parking buses with Tony Pulis to stealing taxis under Alan Pardew. A horrible week for West Brom ends with their one glimmer of light being banished in front of an understandably unhappy Hawthorns.
Jonny Evans and Gareth Barry both started against Southampton, despite their escapades just days earlier having cast a cloud over the club. The former was stripped of his captaincy, which Pardew explained was “a little bit of a statement”.
“Obviously I was furious with what happened but at the same time, I’ve got to stay faithful to the players and give them a chance to remedy the situation,” Pardew continued, but that is nonsense. The manager owes no such “faith” to players who show no respect to him or the club. Where is the “faith” owed to Sam Field, who would have offered infinitely more in midfield than the static Barry on Saturday?
Had the four individuals arrested in Spain been in the reserves or youth team, they would not have retained their places the following game. They would have been adequately punished, made an example out of. Evans and Barry should be no different just because of their experience.
* Mauricio Pellegrino is very much on-brand. “Like every single weekend we have to improve and draw some conclusions about the positive and negative things,” said the Argentinean after Southampton found a way past West Brom to reach the last eight. And draw some conclusions we shall.
This was the first of five games that Pellegrino described as “fundamental” earlier this week, and also their third win in five. The downside is that two of those have come against West Brom, and this was achieved in spite of having five shots to the hosts’ 23. Pellegrino’s in-game management continues to come under scrutiny, and Guido Carrillo is still without a first goal.
There are no negatives to reaching the FA Cup quarter-final, but the positives are muted. This was more tentative tiptoe than forward step.
* When asked about VAR on Tuesday, Jose Mourinho offered the following thoughts.
“From my professional perspective, I like the feeling of a right decision is coming,” he said. “It’s a penalty or not a penalty, it’s handball or not handball, it’s a red card or not a red card. I think a fair decision is a feeling that I like.”
By Saturday evening, he was answering the same questions. VAR was used – and used absolutely laughably – to rule out a first half Juan Mata goal.
Did a toddler hand draw those VAR lines?! I love the curve around his knee. Someone’s having a joke 🙈 pic.twitter.com/c4iutnJBBt
— Lynsey Hipgrave (@lynseyhipgrave1) February 17, 2018
Leave aside the questionable implementation of the technology for one second, and just ponder why the use of VAR was championed in the first place. Referee chief Mike Riley stressed last month that VAR should only ever be used in the event of a “clear and obvious” error, but this was no such thing. This was the most marginal of offside calls, not a glaring mistake.
One of the benefits of VAR was that it would reduce the number of post-match debates. Thus far, it has only increased them, and for entirely the wrong reasons.
* Upon hearing that Mauricio Pochettino had made 11 changes for Tottenham’s trip to Rochdale, you would be forgiven for once again questioning the Spurs boss’s attitude towards the FA Cup. Pochettino has never hidden the fact that the competition remains way below the Premier League and the Champions League, but this was a team selection that certainly did not suggest that the manager regards the cup with contempt.
It was a team crammed with senior internationals and experienced Premier League campaigners, a side that satisfied Pochettino’s desire to rotate but also one that should have had enough to make relatively light work of League One’s bottom side. The XI also featured many names with a point to prove, but the first hour only served to highlight why some of them were trotting out at Spotland today, rather than Turin last Tuesday. Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama were played at their own game by Rochdale, while Fernando Llorente still resembles an imposter in the Spurs ranks.
Even in the wake of taking a late lead after Harry Kane had to be dispatched from the bench, Spurs still failed to see it through. Just a few moments after kissing the camera in the wake of Kane’s penalty, Danny Rose was one of at least three defenders culpable for not getting close enough to the Rochdale players descending upon the box, with Kieran Trippier allowing the ball to be crossed and Toby Alderweireld serving only to flick the ball into Steve Davies’ path.
“The FA Cup is magic,” said Pochettino afterwards, hiding his disdain for the competition rather better than previously, even if many would forgive his frustration at the effect it is now having on his side’s schedule. But you can bet that the Tottenham boss will have been more forthcoming with his players who are entirely at fault for the extra unwanted distractions.
* The Tottenham starter to most enhance his prospects was the man making his first appearance in Pochettino’s XI. Lucas Moura has been a man living on reputation alone for the last couple of years, but Spurs fans’ first glimpse of the new boy suggests Daniel Levy’s punt in the final days of the transfer window may pay off.
274 – Lucas Moura will make his first start in club football since 20th May 2017 for PSG against Caen, 274 days ago. Awaited.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 18, 2018
The Brazilian seized what had become to feel like a rare opportunity with a display of drive and penetration, displaying none of the rustiness you might expect from a player used so fleetingly in recent months. Playing off the right in the first half, he was comfortable going either way around Rochdale’s defence, before the second period showcased what he can do from the opposite flank, darting in between defenders, with or without the ball.
Moura started and finished the move that gave Spurs their equaliser and himself a first goal in English football. His substitution with 20 minutes today appeared pre-planned rather than as a consequence of tiring legs and his performance gave the man who replaced him, Dele Alli, another reminder that his place in Pochettino’s side is by no means assured unless he can conjure up some consistent form.
* For those of us getting our first proper look at Rochdale, the obvious question is: why the hell are they bottom of League One?
The first half also disproved the theory that Dale’s best chance went with the turf that was dug up and replaced over the last week. Pochettino was gushing in his praise of the hosts for their achievements in laying a new surface over the last week, perhaps overemphasising the point after apologising for his previous criticism prior to the decision to roll out a new pitch for the Premier League team. But Dale’s performance in the opening hour – particularly the first half – suggested that a cow field would hamper Dale’s game plan just as much as Tottenham’s.
Keith Hill’s side pressed Spurs, especially Winks and Wanyama, before moving the ball around with confidence when it was won. They created opportunities, not by going Route One as many might have expected, but by taking Tottenham on at their own game. At half-time, they deserved their lead, which fittingly came after winning possession high up the pitch before Andy Cannon weighted his pass perfectly for Ian Henderson to sweep home. It was goal many might have expected from the high-flying visitors, rather than the rock-bottom hosts.
As expected, Rochdale tired when the game stretched behind the hour mark, and Pochettino’s tactical switch, likely made amid a half-time rollicking for his players, saw Spurs finally assert some domination. But Dale’s approach did not waiver, nor did their determination.
It is difficult not to sound condescending while praising Hill’s men, but the last-gasp leveller and a trip to Wembley was no less than they deserved. Now, to the real issue of retaining their League One status.
They can take a huge amount of confidence from this performance, that Hill admitted was the best of their season. “Key decisions and silly mistakes,” was what the manager attributed their league position to but this display in front of the cameras should give the players the morale to recover, despite sitting 11 points off safety. They have four games in hand on most of their rivals, and five on others, and the momentum from today has to be taken into the 19 games they must cram into the next 11 weeks if they are to pull off what previous to today seemed an unlikely escape.
Matt Stead and Ian Watson