There’s surely no more perfect way to start a new working week than dark skies and rain, is there? Winter remains strong and is not leaving without a fight, even as we approach March.
For football, winter means the FA Cup, and we’ve just seen a rather predictable round of cup action and an even more predictable draw.
To begin with, we saw Chelsea power past hapless Hull. Perhaps the Championship side were occupied with survival, but they let the chance to upset a vulnerable Chelsea team pass them by. Whatever troubles they’re having at the Bridge, another cup run is on the cards – and there’s no Arsenal around this time to stop them.
Elsewhere on Friday, Jamie Vardy helped Leicester past Sheffield United. United did a better job representing the second division than Hull did, but couldn’t find a way past Claude Puel’s team. Doubts about his appointment as Leicester’s manager have surely been allayed by now.
I caught the Sheffield Wednesday/Swansea game on Saturday. It was a game full of nearly moments, with neither side producing the required quality in the final third to settle the tie. They’ll now play a replay nobody wants, not least Carlos Carvalhal, who said:
“It’s a score nobody wants. Maybe in the future, if the managers and referee agree after the first game we can go to penalties, we can finish the game today. I believe if you had asked us and the Sheffield Wednesday manager, we’d have gone to penalties.”
Replays remain one of the FA Cup’s unique and defining features. They carry benefits for lower league teams, who get a second chance of toppling a giant and the additional match revenue that comes with it. But for a manager concerned with keeping his side in the Premier League, helping out a lower division club is low on his priority list.
Still, it’s a situation of their making. Clubs complain about replays, but then play weakened sides and increase the chances of a replay. Maybe it’d be more pragmatic to play a strong team, secure the result and ensure you have a mid-week off. It’d do the early rounds of the competition some good, too.
Maybe Jose Mourinho thinks like that as well, as he sent a team containing Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku to Huddersfield. The big Belgian striker bagged two, but the headlines were taken once again by VAR.
We expected teething problems with the new system, but the presentation of an incorrect graphic – a series of lines looked like they were drawn by a child messing about on MS Paint – sparked all sorts of confusion. It’s bad enough that the mere concept of technology frazzles some people, nevermind the glitches and bugs that come with it.
The correct decision was reached, in the end. Mata was offside. Had the squiggly yellow line been in the correct place (and not so squiggly), it would have been clear. Unfortunately, this is going to distract from the good that VAR did. If you were unsure about it before, this incident is hardly going to change your mind.
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that the tech designed to erase blatant errors is apologising for making an error. That’s some good irony right there.
On Sunday, Tottenham travelled back from Turin to a classic lower league encounter in Rochdale. A small stadium and re-laid surface greeted them, as did a very fired up Rochdale team. The League One side were impressive, not just for their fighting qualities but for the excellent football they played as well. The execution for their first goal was exceptional.
As expected, though, Spurs made their quality tell in the end. If the pace and menace of Lucas Moura wasn’t enough, the unmatched flopping ability of Dele Alli titled things in their favour. Harry Kane happened to be around to convert the penalty, and that was that… until Rochdale poached in a late equaliser.
I’m not sure why Spurs have had so much trouble dispatching lower league sides this year, but I suspect they’ll win comfortably at Wembley. For Rochdale, it’ll be a wonderful day out, and probably the closest they’ll get to the stadium without reaching the semi-final.
On to the draw then, and oh look, all the big sides have avoided each other.
Leicester vs Chelsea is the tie of the round for me. With the way Leicester have been playing under Puel, they have a genuine chance of beating Chelsea. At the very least, I expect it to be more competitive than United/Brighton.
We’ve got a tie between Swansea/Wednesday and Spurs/Rochdale, which I think will end up being Swansea vs Spurs. Then it’s Wigan or Manchester City against Southampton. Wigan will have their chance tonight to end City’s quadruple hopes. I’ll certainly be cheering for them.
There’s a good chance we’ll get another stacked semi-final, which might create some interesting games. It’s not very romantic, though, is it?