It was to be a huge weekend for Patrick Vieira but Palace may have his successor in place before they go to Arsenal. It’s definitely a biggie for Grimsby, Scott McTominay and Vincent Kompany…
Game to watch – Arsenal v Crystal Palace
This is an enormous game for Arsenal, as they all are now, for obvious reasons. Factor in their Europa League disappointment on Thursday night and the visit of Palace becomes a test of their mettle as they seek to capitalise on Manchester City’s FA Cup distraction to go into the international break with an eight-point lead at the summit.
But this is a biggie for Palace and, at the initial time of writing, it was massive for Patrick Vieira. But while we delete a draft and hurriedly rewrite, the Frenchman is now staring at an unexpected weekend off after he was sacked by the Eagles on Friday morning.
Some feel Vieira has been harshly treated, seemingly on the basis that he appears to be a reasonably nice bloke. Which might have been the problem. Maybe he’s just not suited to the cut and thrust of Premier League management.
Amid a 12-match winless run spanning all of 2023 so far, Vieira cut a forlorn figure on the touchline and in his press conferences. Never had he offered the impression that he knew how to rouse Palace from their slumber as they sleepwalk towards a relegation battle they really have no business being a part of.
Palace sit in 12th place, which is no disgrace – ‘respectable’ even, says the statement confirming Vieira’s exit – but they are only three points off the relegation zone while clubs below them rally. There tends to be one side every season that plummets after New Year and this year’s fallers certainly look likely to be the Eagles.
In their current predicament, few would expect them to go to the leaders and claim three points, but the new manager bounce is a funny thing. With no caretaker yet nominated, perhaps Palace hope to have a new boss in place before they go to the Emirates.
Manager to watch – Vincent Kompany
The Belgian leads his current side into battle against his old club – and narrative suggests perhaps his future one.
Kompany has done a fabulous job with Burnley since taking over at Turf Moor last summer. He walked into a club relegated from the Premier League, Sean Dyche’s club, and one that lost a hefty number of the players they relied upon in the top flight.
Kompany, though, took hold and transformed the Clarets. They are cruising back to the Premier League, sitting 13 points clear of Sheffield United in second and 19 ahead of third-placed Boro. They have lost only two Championship games all season and only one since mid-August. The Clarets are cantering back to the big time.
Which, of course, is a double-edged sword. So impressive is Kompany’s body of work at Burnley, he is being primed for top jobs. Including the Manchester City gig once Pep Guardiola decides he’s had enough.
The jump from the top of the Championship to wherever City will be once Pep walks away is huge and the Catalan is going nowhere just yet. But there will be many at the Etihad watching Kompany on the touchline and his high-flying Burnley side with City’s future in mind as much as an FA Cup semi-final place. Even Pep reckons Kompany is ‘destined’ to follow in his footsteps.
Burnley’s dominance of the Championship affords Kompany and his players the chance to go to the Etihad, forget the nitty gritty of the second tier for a weekend, and focus on proving that they belong in City’s company on a more regular basis. With City perhaps more preoccupied by the Premier League and Champions League, the Clarets could have an opportunity to make an already exceptional season all the more special.
Team to watch – Grimsby
The Cod army have already made FA Cup history by becoming the first team in the history of the competition to beat five sides from a higher division in a single season. They return to the south coast on Sunday afternoon to take on Brighton having already turned over Southampton to reach their first cup quarter-final since 1939.
That’s achievement enough for a side currently placed 15th in League Two and the temptation is strong to pat them on the head before getting behind Brighton for the cup. But there is a precedent for a shock involving these sides. Admittedly, we have to go all the way back to 1930 and the last time Grimsby and Brighton met in the competition. Then, Town were in the top flight and Albion occupied the Third Division South but it was the Seagulls who triumphed over the Mariners.
Ninety-three years they have waited for revenge (they almost certainly haven’t, but let’s pretend) and Grimsby are in as fine a fettle as they might reasonably hope to achieve it. They have won their last two games while keeping clean sheets and, in the cup, no side has scored more goals in this season’s competition. Their 15 strikes, all against higher-level opposition, are the most of a fourth-tier side in 30 years.
But Brighton are in formidable form and have a 40-year itch to scratch as they seek to reach Wembley in the hope of actually winning a football match at the national stadium. The Seagulls have been there five times, losing four and drawing once. They reached an almost universally-forgotten semi-final in 2019 when they were brushed aside by Manchester City, but this year represents a great opportunity for Roberto De Zerbi to add something tangible to the huge strides they have made to sit among the big boys towards the top of the table.
Player to watch – Scott McTominay
The last time McTominay was trusted to stand in for Casemiro, in the last round of the FA Cup, the Manchester United midfielder was hooked at half-time when Erik ten Hag felt obliged to roll out his star act after the Scottish stand-in proved to be the palest of imitations. Casemiro sparked United to beat West Ham; he won’t be available to bail them out this weekend when Fulham go to Old Trafford.
The Brazilian’s red card offers McTominay a month-long opportunity to show his value to Ten Hag and prove himself worthy of keeping around ahead of a summer United might have to sell to buy the players they need for the next stage of their rebuild. McTominay almost certainly won’t play a leading role in that, and perhaps a bit-part doesn’t appeal to the 26-year-old. But, theoretically, he is the player best suited to screen Ten Hag’s defence in Casemiro’s absence.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that McTominay’s performances actually delayed Casemiro’s debut when the big summer signing arrived from Real Madrid towards the end of the summer. The 26-year-old badly needs to rediscover that form ahead of a huge month for him and United, starting against Fulham and one of the players United are apparently considering replacing him with.
Read more: Casemiro gives McTominay a month to prove himself an able deputy at Man Utd
EFL game (of sorts) to watch – Sheffield United v Blackburn
With no EFL offering on Sky Sports this weekend, you’ll have to get your Championship kicks via the FA Cup, with Sheffield United and Blackburn meeting for a semi-final place and a trip to Wembley.
It could be a season to remember for both sides, with the Blades currently occupying the second automatic promotion spot while Rovers look good for a play-off place. While getting out of the Championship remains the top priority for Paul Heckingbottom and Jon Dahl Tomasson, neither manager is about to chuck in their cup run, especially given the success they have enjoyed – United beat Tottenham; Rovers outclassed Leicester – to get here.
It’s a familiar environment for the Blades. This will be their third FA Cup quarter-final in four years, though they lost both of those last eight clashes to Arsenal in 2020 and Chelsea the following year.
Their run to the last eight this year, especially the win over Spurs, has distracted somewhat from a recent wobble in the league. The Blades had gone unbeaten to open up a 10-point cushion but four defeats in six opened the door for Middlesbrough, even if Boro stumbled at the step in midweek. United then won – unjustly and oddly in front of Ousmane Dembele – at Sunderland to regain some composure and a six-point advantage.
Rovers enjoyed their prep for the trip to Bramall Lane, beating Reading 2-1 on Wednesday. They’ll take over 5,700 fans to Sheffield as they look to secure a first trip to Wembley since it was rebuilt.
European game to watch – Barcelona v Real Madrid
If you have plans to be social on Sunday night, cancel them…
Instead, end the weekend right with three huge games from Italy and Spain. The first, at 5pm, is the Rome derby with third-placed Lazio facing Roma in fifth as the battle for Champions League places heats up. The last Rome derby Jose Mourinho attended was an Under-14s game and he copped flak for booing a Lazio kid and urging his own nippers to feign injury. Jose is on one at the moment so this could be spectacular.
The Derby d’Italia follows, with Inter Milan hosting Juventus. You can catch the first 15 minutes before tuning in to a super-massive El Clasico.
Barcelona can tuck up Real Madrid in the title race if they win at the Nou Camp, with nine points already separating the two La Liga giants. Real will have to do a madness if the gap becomes a 12-point chasm. If they whittle it down to six points by winning a Clasico sandwiched between another couple in the Copa del Rey, then Spain might just have a title race.