Football’s oldest cup competition returned this weekend, and with it further chances of England’s lower league teams to write their own headlines. With ten of the sixteen fourth round ties pitting teams from different levels of the league pyramid against each other there was plenty of opportunity abound for upsets. Here are the talking points.
Close but no cigar for aspiring giant-killers…
Newport County were looking to match their best ever performance in the FA Cup by reaching the fifth round for the first time since 1949, having embarked on their best cup run since the club reformed in 1989. Shawn McCoulsky’s 89th minute header against Leeds United in the third round had ensured that The Exiles would become one of the biggest stories from this year’s competition, but their chances of progressing further were seriously hindered when the draw pitted them against Premier League Tottenham Hotspur. For clubs like Newport County in the lower echelons of the football league, however, opportunities to test their mettle against the likes of Harry Kane and…Moussa Sissoko don’t come along every week, and with BT Sport snapping up the broadcast rights to the fixture, they could at the very least look forward to a windfall of TV money. Furthermore, Mike Flynn’s side came into the game in good form, currently unbeaten in 2018 and playing themselves into contention for a play-off place in League Two. Tottenham meanwhile were still trying to shake off a virus that decimated their team ahead of last week’s draw at Southampton, but judging by Mauricio Pochettino’s starting line-up, they weren’t taking victory for granted. Kane was joined in attack by Fernando Llorente, while two midfield anchors in Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele lined up in front of a five man defence. Newport’s top scorer Padraig Amond spearheaded the hosts attack, with former West Ham forward Frank Nouble playing just off the Irishman. From the off, and with the pitch slightly boggier than the Spurs players were perhaps used to, Newport were in the faces of their illustrious visitors. In the third minute, a ponderous moment from Eric Dier gave the busy Joss Labadie all the encouragement required to rob the England international of possession before firing a ball across the area and into the path of Nouble. With time to compose himself, the Newport forward opted to strike the ball first time but lifted his shot over. Spurs looked rattled throughout the first half, Llorente and Sissoko in particular allowing possession to be turned over easily, though Kane did see his acrobatic volley strike the post. Seven minutes before half time, though, and with the League Two side on top, the unthinkable happened. Ben Tozer, formerly of Newcastle United, flung one of his trademark long throws into the area, and though the Tottenham backline cleared the immediate danger, Robbie Willmott’s swinging cross found Amond at the backpost, and the Newport striker nodded in to put the South Walians in dream land. Holding a slender lead against last season’s Premier League runners up was always going to be a big ask, but despite Spurs’ dominance in the second half, Flynn’s side held firm and frustrated their opponents, for whom Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli had entered the fray. With eight minutes to go, and the biggest story of this year’s competition ready to his the presses, substitute Ben Davies curled a corner into the six yard box, Son met it at the near post with a deft heel flick that found Kane, unmarked and a yard from goal, to tap in an equaliser and break Newport hearts. The hosts were able to hold out until the final whistle, and Mike Flynn’s joy and relief at securing a replay was plain to see. Though the odds of Newport progressing to the fifth round may have lengthened considerably, a trip to Wembley and the financial bonus of a (likely) televised replay against a Premier League team can be considered a good evening’s work for the Welsh side.
Another side from League Two, Kevin Nolan’s Notts County, perhaps would have fancied their chances when hosting Premier League Swansea City on Saturday afternoon, with The Magpies sitting pretty in the automatic promotion places in the fourth tier, and their opponents currently occupying 20th place in the top division. Naming an experienced strikeforce of Jon Stead and Shola Ameobi, Nolan will have been acutely aware of the upturn in Swansea’s fortunes since the appointment of Carlos Carvalhal – their victory over Liverpool on Monday night made it one defeat in six for the Portuguese manager since his appointment in December. Indeed it was the Swans that took the game to their hosts in the first half, and but for an acrobatic save from Adam Collin in the County goal would have taken the lead through Wilfried Bony’s header. A minute later, and on the stroke of half time, Swansea got their goal. Ki Seung-Yung’s pass found Luciano Narsingh on the right-hand side of the area, and the Dutchman steered a low shot into the far corner, leaving Collin with little chance. The Magpies came out reinvigorated in the second half, quickly racking up shots on goal but lacking the accuracy to test Kristoffer Nordfelt in the Swans goal. Just past the hour, though, the moment arrived, but not without controversy. Elliott Hewitt scampered to the byline to drive a low cross into the box, which on second glance almost certainly cross the deadball line, allowing Ameobi to lay the ball off for Jorge Grant, who in turn fired a low cross into the Swans penalty area. With confusion reigning in the visitors defence, Stead was on hand to divert the ball home and bring County level. Swansea were back on the front-foot following the equaliser but, despite shots on target from Ki, Bony and Jordan Ayew, the visitors were unable to breach Collin’s goal for a second time and the game ended one a piece. For County, a richly deserved replay that their tenacious performance deserved. For Carvalhal another unwanted fixture that may compromise the club’s fight for Premier League survival.
It wasn’t just League Two teams trying to pull off a surprise in the fourth round, as struggling Rochdale travelled to Championship Millwall in the hope of springing their own mini-shock. The Dale are currently sat second from bottom in League One, looking likely to return to the fourth tier after four seasons of missing out on the playoffs. For their part, Millwall are sitting comfortably in lower mid-table after last season’s promotion, and will have been hoping to extend their cup run to add an extra slice of excitement into a season that looks to be petering out. It took just seventeen minutes for the hosts to open the scoring – Donervon Daniels’ trip on Fred Onyedinma allowing Jed Wallace to fire home from the spot to give the Lions the lead. Any notion that Millwall were in for a comfortable afternoon went out of the window just after the half hour mark when Ian Henderson rocketed Rochdale level, leaving David Martin in the Millwall goal with no chance of maintaining a clean sheet. Things went from bad to worse for Neil Harris’ side in the second half, as Matt Done found space at the far post to tap Rochdale into the lead. A morale boosting win through to the Fifth Round was minutes away for Keith Hill’s men, when Millwall midfielder Ben Thompson found the bottom corner from range to force a replay. Harris will fancy his team’s chances up at Spotland, where Rochdale have won just five times in all competitions this season, and will be hoping to emulate last season’s run to the quarter-finals.
…while other Goliaths simply steamrolled their lower league opposition.
Yeovil Town, the lowest ranked team left in the competition, welcomed Manchester United to Somerset in Friday night’s televised game, as the two sides met for the fourth time in their respective histories, but for the second time in three years. Back in 2015, Louis Van Gaal’s United left Huish Park with a 2-0 victory in the third round thanks to goals from Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria, but it was another explosive South American that grabbed the pre-match headlines this time around. Alexis Sanchez, having completed his move to Old Trafford from Arsenal this week, was named in the starting lineup for the first time as a Manchester United player, and immediately self-righteous journalists everywhere went into overdrive trying to work out how many dairy farms could be maintained on his weekly wage. The Glovers, who possess the most horrifying mascot in the football league, kept the game tight in the first half but were eventually undone when a lapse in concentration allowed Marcus Rashford to steal in and knock the ball past Artur Krysiak to give the visitors the lead. From that moment on the game became something of an Everest for Yeovil, who are currently embroiled in a relegation scrap at the bottom of League Two. Just after the hour, the irrepressible Sanchez fed the ball into Herrera and the Spaniard scored his second goal in as many games at Huish Park. Yeovil did well to keep the score down to two as Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard were introduced by Jose Mourinho, but in the final five minutes of the game the result swung from respectable for the hosts to comfortable for the visitors. Lingard, enjoying by far his best season in professional football, turned the Yeovil backline into knots before driving the ball into the bottom corner, and, in the third minute of stoppage time, Marcos Rojo found himself on the left hand side of the area, and his cross was powered in by the unmarked Lukaku. A disappointing end to the game for Darren Way and his team, but at least the home crowd got to boo Alexis Sanchez for an hour.
The Saturday lunchtime game saw Peterborough United host Leicester City, having seen off Aston Villa in round three. Much to the chagrin of Paul Merson, Leicester boss Claude Puel named a much-changed side for the trip to London Road, with Harvey Barnes and Fousseni Diabaté both making their debuts for the Foxes. For Posh, the sought after striker Jack Marriott was hoping to enhance his credentials amidst rumours of interest from Crystal Palace, while Steven Taylor started in central defence. It’s unclear at which point in the first half Merson began to regret labeling Puel’s teamsheet as ‘disgraceful’, but the audible gulping from the Sky Sports studios would have been music to the French manager’s ears when, after nine minutes, Diabaté gave Leicester the lead with a tidy finish. Three minutes later, £25m reserve striker Kelechi Iheanacho curled a second into the bottom corner, and the tie was all but put to bed with the Nigerian’s second before the half-hour mark – a volley of sublime technique proof enough that the former Manchester City man has plenty to offer this Leicester side. The Posh rallied briefly at the start of the second half, pulling a goal back through Andrew Hughes, but a late double salvo from Diabaté and Wilfred Ndidi put the gloss on the scoreline that the Foxes dominant display deserved. With his side sitting pretty in the Premier League table, Puel might just fancy another stab at a Wembley final.
There was still room for a couple of ‘surprises’ though…
Thankfully for the guardians of The Magic of The Cup™, Saturday afternoon did bring two upsets, if only in the rawest definition. West Ham United, still embroiled in a relegation scrap and heavily depleted by twelve injuries, made their way up to the DW Stadium to take on a Wigan Athletic side currently top of League One and brimming with confidence. The Latics came into the game off a fourteen match unbeaten run, having knocked out Premier League Bournemouth in round three with a convincing 3-0 win in the replay, having had victory snatched away at the last down at Dean Court. The Hammers were still able to name five internationals in their starting line up, with loan singing Joao Mario starting on the bench. Ahead of the game, the League One side were installed as bookies’ favourites to progress, and once underway it was obvious to see why. Nick Powell, whose early promise led to a big money move to Manchester United that never really worked out, showed the kind of class and composure that has seen him become one of Wigan’s key players this season, and the Latics’ own international forward gave Paul Cook’s side the lead after just seven minutes. Nathan Byrne’s deep cross was met by Will Grigg at the back post, and the Northern Irishman powered a header past Joe Hart. Pedro Obiang was replaced half-way through the first half with what looked like a nasty injury to add further to David Moyes’ selection headaches, and the Hammers’ task was made all the more difficult by a moment of madness from Arthur Masuaku early in the second half. After an innocuous looking challenge from Powell, the French full-back spat at his opponent and immediately received his marching orders. The game was sown up for the hosts just after the hour when Grigg’s attempt to juggle over Reece Burke was adjudged to be handled by the young defender, and referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a penalty. In truth it was an extremely harsh decision, but Grigg’s second of the game was no more than Wigan deserved. No doubt the Latics will be hoping to draw Manchester City in the fifth round, given the bizarre hoodoo they hold over the Sky Blues, while Moyes will be furiously attempting to plaster a team together for the visit of Crystal Palace this week.
In the other upset of the day, Coventry City squeezed past MK Dons to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup for the first time since 2009. The Sky Blues had seen off Stoke City, and Mark Hughes, in round three, but the draw away to Milton Keynes would have felt a little deflating after their heroics. Even so, with the hosts currently in disarray and scrapping around in the League One relegation places, high-flying Coventry would have fancied their chances to create a shock, and it came to pass with Maxime Biamou’s second half goal. In truth, MK Dons’ lacklustre performance offered only a token resistance against their lower league opponents, and despite ceding most of the possession, Mark Robins’ side were good value for the win.
…but the headlines of the fourth round belong to VAR.
The FA’s bizarre experiment with the Video Assistant Referee technology gave the Saturday evening meeting between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion the added frisson that a mismatched all-Premier League tie was crying out for. Having chosen a fairly incident free game between Brighton and Crystal Palace in round three to trial it for the first time, there were plenty hoping that the game at Anfield could produce an opportunity for ‘the future of refereeing’ to prove its worth. With both sides naming strong starting line-ups, the game roared into life after just five minutes. Mo Salah streaked clear of the Baggies defence, but Ben Foster was quick off his line to divet the ball away, before Roberto Firmino lined up a shot from the edge of the box, and lifted a delicate chip over Foster’s head to give Liverpool the lead. Two minutes later, and it became clear there was a game on. Chris Brunt slipped a ball into the path of Jay Rodriguez, and the West Brom striker shifted away from his marker before lashing a shot into the top corner to restore parity. By the eleventh minute, the game had been turned on its head. Kieran Gibbs, maruading down the left hand side, slid a ball across the box and Rodriguez was allowed to ghost in a the back post to tap in his second of the game. Then everything went haywire. Firstly, Craig Dawson had appeared to head in a third for Alan Pardew’s side on the twenty minute mark. Referee Craig Pawson (what are the chances?) drew an imaginary television in the air, and did his best impression of Madonna forgetting the words to ‘Vogue’ while he conferred with the VAR. Eventually, after a couple of minutes of the gathered 53,000 having no idea what was going on, the goal was ruled out for offside, with Hal Robson-Kanu adjudged to have been blocking the sight of Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal. In the 27th minute, VAR was back in the thick of it as Mo Salah went down in the West Brom area and Pawson’s initial judgement was challenged by the Liverpool players. After another long delay, with no-one in the ground aware of what was going on and Pawson watching the same two seconds of footage over and over again, a penalty was awarded. Pardew could have been justified in thinking the machines had finally turned against him, and who can blame them, but a slice of luck fell his side’s way as Firmino blasted his penalty against the post. West Brom, keeping their heads in a tempestuous atmosphere, eventually added a third on the stroke of half-time as Joel Matip became tangled up in the area and diverted a cross past Mignolet, but even with something as clear cut as an own goal, the self-doubt that had crept into Pawson’s performance was tangible as he deferred to the VAR to confirm the legitimacy of Matip’s error. A relatively incident-free second half saw Salah pull a goal back for the hosts, but despite serious pressure being heaped on their defence, the Baggies held out to pull off a fantastic win. Unfortunately there won’t be much reflection on West Brom’s performance, since the introduction and execution of VAR will dominate the conversation for the next week. For what its worth, this observer felt both decisions made by the VAR were harsh on the Baggies – Robson-Kanu’s interference with play for Dawson’s ‘goal’ seemed negligible, while Salah’s sniper fall for the penalty suggested the Egyptian was most certainly looking for a decision, but the two main issues thrown up from this match are (a) that supporters at the game haven’t got the first clue what’s going on when the referee marches off the pitch to review a decision, and (b) is it fair that one match per round is given twice the amount of scrutiny by referees than all the others? The argument around VAR will run and run, but it seems there’s still plenty of work to do around implementation before it can become a successful part of the game.
In the other fourth round ties there were comfortable wins for Chelsea and Manchester City – who also had a goal controversially ruled out – over Newcastle and Cardiff City respectively, while Brighton and Southampton edged out Middlesbrough and Watford with a single goal each. Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Hull City all prospered in their all Championship clashes against Reading, Preston North End and Arsenal’s conquerors Nottingham Forest, while Birmingham earned a replay at Huddersfield Town.
Whether Newport or Notts County can get the job done in their replays against Premier League opposition remains to be seen, but Coventry City have guaranteed a League Two side in the fifth round, meaning plenty of curious eyes will be on tonight’s Fifth Round draw from the West Midlands.