As the season approaches the business-end, presumably the point at which players start to take copious amount of cocaine and leer at female colleagues whilst their managers overlook anyone that isn’t white, middle-class and middle-aged for first-team places, the FA Cup begins to brutally sort the wheat from the chaff. Already the fourth round replays have put paid to League Two’s Newport and Notts County, though the manner of thier exits couldn’t have been more different, as The Exiles were squeezed out in a tight game at Wembley by Spurs, while Kevin Nolan’s side were unceremoniously humped in South Wales by Swansea. That left just one fourth tier side left in the competition, with Coventry City earning a trip to the south-coast to face Premier League Brighton and Hove Albion thanks to their win at MK Dons in Round Four. Rochdale, struggling towards the bottom of League One, and Wigan Athletic, seemingly running away with the third tier title before back-to-back defeats in the past ten days, completed the line-up from outside the top two divisions, and were both awarded glamour ties at home to Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City respectively. Compared to last year’s fifth round – where non-league Lincoln City and Sutton United both faced Premier League sides with varying results – the magic quota had certainly been dialed down for 2018, though that does seem grimly appropriate given the times. Still, as the blindly optimistic tagline for the world’s oldest cup competition goes – ANYTHING could happen. Here are the talking points.
VAR makes another cameo appearance…
The John Smiths Stadium was the fortunate host for the fifth round’s VAR experiment as Huddersfield Town welcomed Manchester United. Both sides named strong starting line-ups, though Huddersfield were dealt a blow as Laurnet Depoitre and Aaron Mooy, architects of the Terriers victory over United in October, were missing through injury. Paul Pogba was left out of the matchday squad having limped off at St James Park last weekend, and Scott McTominay returned to the starting line-up, perhaps looking forward to reassuming relations with Terence Kongolo after the Dutch defender’s body slam in the recent league meeting between the two sides. The visitors opened the scoring in the third minute when Romelu Lukaku beat the hosts offside trap before drilling past Jonas Lossl, and when Ashley Young’s cross found Juan Mata and the Spaniard slid the ball into the net in the last minute of the first half, it looked as though Manchester United’s safe passage to the quarter-finals was secured. Minimal protest from the Huddersfield defence followed, and with the United players still celebrating, Kevin Friend turned to the Video Assistant Referee to clarify the decision. The trademark confusion that VAR is wreaking in televised cup games this season then took hold, as the referee awaited confirmation. In the event the goal was ruled out for offside, but it wasn’t until those watching at home saw the VAR’s bizarre evidence that confusion turned to disbelief. A still image of the moment Young played the ball into Mata was presented along with a selection of blue lines – presumably acting as yard-markers – that did not match the angles of the pitch. One further marking – a wonky yellow line – offered no conclusive evidence as to whether the United playmaker had strayed offside or not. Hawkeye released a statement on Sunday confirming that the image shown on television was not the one used to make the decision, and in fact there had been an error with the rendering which distorted the graphic. With all said and done, the decision made little difference to the result of the game. Lukaku added a second goal ten minutes after half-time, and Mourinho’s men cruised into round six with a degree of ease. In the post-match interview Juan Mata, faced by the frothing mouth of a journalist, refused to become too animated by the decision – it had, after all, not affected the result – but with the amount of debate over the practical implication of VAR already on the few occasions it’s been trialed, we can all look forward to months of think pieces from the media once it’s inevitably installed full-time next season.
…while the Premier League sides comfortably see off lower league opposition.
Chelsea’s inexorable march to another cup final continued on Friday night as, having squeaked past Norwich City on penalties and comfortably dispatched Newcastle in round four, Antonio Conte welcomed Hull City to Stamford Bridge. Nigel Adkins’ Tigers had surprisingly knocked Nottingham Forest out in the last round, but as they continue to fight against the tide of back-to-back relegations, the chances of springing an upset on last year’s finalists always seemed unlikely. Etham Ampadu and Emerson Palmieri were brought into the starting line-up by the home side, and despite Eden Hazard being given the evening off, a front three of Olivier Giroud, Willian and Pedro promised to give Hull’s backline one or two nervous moments. It took Chelsea just two minutes to open the scoring, as Willian drove towards the penalty area before dispatching a shot into David Marshall’s top corner. The second arrived just before the half-hour mark as Cesc Fabregas pinged a ball between the Tigers’ centre-backs and Pedro raced on to slide the ball in, and five minutes later Willian’s second of the game effectively sealed Chelsea’s progression to the quarters. There was still time in the first half for Giroud to open his Chelsea account, slipping a cheeky heel flick into the bottom corner from Emerson’s pass. The second half was a case of damage limitation more than anything for Hull, but the Yorkshire side should have troubled the score-sheet when Fabregas brought down Harry Wilson. David Meyler’s penalty was struck with plenty of power, but it didn’t take a great deal of athleticism from Willy Cabellero for the Chelsea ‘keeper to palm it away to safety. Conte’s side still on course for their 13th FA Cup final appearance.
While Hull City may have been defeated before kick-off, Coventry City will have fancied their chances of causing at upset at the Amex, with hosts Brighton and Hove Albion having half an eye on Premier League survival. Chris Hughton made a host of changes to the side that drew at Stoke City last weekend, with Jurgen Locadia and Leonardo Ulloa both included in the starting line-up for the first time since their moves to the south-coast in the January window. Jack Grimmer, Coventry’s hero against Stoke in round three, returned to the starting line-up having missed the defeats to Accrington Stanley and Colchester United. Jonson Clarke-Harris rattled the Brighton crossbar in the opening stages as an expansive Sky Blues side looked to take the game to their Premier League opposition, but it didn’t take long for Chris Hughton’s men to assert their dominance and, with quarter of an hour played, Locadia swept Anthony Knockaert’s cross in to give Brighton the lead. Connor Goldson, making only his sixth appearance this season, headed a second for the Seagulls ten minutes before the break, and despite Coventry carving some decent opportunities, Ulloa’s powerful header just past the hour mark made the game safe for Brighton. Clarke-Harris was eventually rewarded for an industrious display for Coventry, steering home with thirteen minutes to play, but Hughton’s side had done the hard work to secure Brighton’s first quarter-final appearance since 1986.
The draw kept the big boys apart again…
For whatever reason it was decided that the quarter-final draw would take place after the televised game between Huddersfield Town and Manchester Untied on Saturday evening, which of course prompted a torrent of anger and disbelief from sections of the internet that should really read the news a bit more. John Cross became John: cross, as he took to Twitter to accuse the FA of “killing” the FA Cup. Presumably his memories of watching the cup draw as a boy with Grandfather Cross on The One Show have now been ruined. Any opportunity to poke the corpse of the cup I suppose. The most striking thing from the draw, however, wasn’t that it was taking place two nights early, but rather it managed to keep those sides from the top six left in the competition apart once again. Southampton, who’d taken advantage of West Bromwich Albion’s grand theft auto distraction to nick a 2-1 win at the Hawthorns, were rewarded with a trip to the winners of Wigan Athletic v Manchester City. Leicester City, having edged out Sheffield United on Friday and taken on the mantle of dark horses this season, were drawn to host Chelsea, Brighton were drawn away to Manchester United, and the winners of Swansea City and Sheffield Wednesday – who played out a goalless draw on Saturday lunchtime – were drawn at home to the winners of the Rochdale v Tottenham. Now before we all reach for our tin hats, this isn’t the opening statement for a conspiracy – although there were plenty shouting “FIX” on Saturday night, including Matt Le Tisser – but the fact that, for the seventh time in eight draws, the top six had all avoided each other seems like the ultimate case of sod’s law for the Leicesters and Brightons of this world. The conspiracy goes that, with the best four teams kept apart, the FA can offer blockbuster semi-finals to global broadcasters for big bucks. Perhaps, but with Jose Mourinho involved, you can guarantee that Manchester United’s presence in a semi-final against a fellow top six side will be anything but entertaining.
…but remember, in the FA Cup anything can happen.
Having found themselves minutes away from being on the wrong-end of the most sensational story of this year’s competition, Tottenham finally edged past Newport County in the replay at Wembley. Harry Kane’s 82nd minute equaliser in the first game at Rodney Parade gave Mauricio Pochettino’s side a reprieve after they’d huffed and puffed across the boggy pitch in South Wales with little to show for their efforts against a spirited County side. Their reward for overcoming a host of cup cliches? A trip to Rochdale’s Spotland, and the chance to do it all over again. Ahead of the tie, and presumably off the back of his team’s near embarrassment in the previous round, Pochettino declared the turf at Rochdale ‘a big risk’ to his players, prompting the FA to provide a helping hand to the struggling League One side to relay the turf ahead of the game. With the game chosen to be televised by the BBC, it had already proved a financial success before kick-off for Dale, and the sight of Tottenham lining up without Harry Kane, Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen in the starting line-up would have only further improved the mood in the stands on Sunday afternoon. While Keith Hill’s side may not have offered the in-your-face, blood-and-thunder of Spurs’ previous opponents, it quickly became clear that a breezy February evening in the North West was not at the top of Tottenham’s bucket-list. The visitors carved out chances in the first half, most notably spurned by Fernando Llorente, though it was anything but one-way traffic. Dale, currently at the foot of League One, eleven points from safety but with four games in hand, were driven forwards in the first half by the excellent Callum Camps, and deservedly took the lead on the stroke of half-time as Ian Henderson avoided the attentions of Kieran Trippier and ghosted into the box to fire past Michel Vorm. The home side looked to retreat in their shell somewhat in the opening stages of the second half, and just before the hour Tottenham brought themselves level. Lucas Moura, making his first start since his £27m move from Paris Saint-Germain, latched onto Moussa Sissoko’s through ball before lifting a shot over Dale ‘keeper Josh Lillis. Pochettino swiftly introduced Alli, Erik Lamela and Kane as Tottenham went looking to avoid another replay, and with two minutes left to play Alli’s surge into the area was adjudged to have been halted by Harrison McGahey, and the Premier League side were awarded a penalty. Replays suggested that, while there was contact, Alli had made the most of the challenge – his reputation as that kind of player seems to be growing by the week, though if personal videos leaked from his iCloud account are anything to go by, they’re not growing as quickly as his pubic hair. Perhaps the saturation in the misty Manchester air was weighing him down. Either way, Kane stepped up and fired the penalty in to all but assure Tottenham safe passage into the quarter-finals – surely not even SPURS could lose an 88th minute lead to a team 62 places below them in the league pyramid. With four minutes of stoppage time on the clock, and the roar from the home fans enveloping Spotland, Rochdale started to throw everything towards Vorm’s goal. High ball after high ball was batted away by the Tottenham backline, but with ninety seconds to play the ball dropped to Steve Davies on the penalty spot, and the Scouse striker swept in an equaliser to send OL11 bonkers. A Wembley replay is the least Dale deserved from a dynamic perfomance, though with fixtures piling up after postponements they’re looking ahead to a busy few months between now and the end of the season. Pochettino meanwhile may just rue leaving Alli and Kane on the bench for the opening hour, having had to introduce them anyway and still not avoiding another fixture. Still, an absorbing afternoon in Greater Manchester, and a reminder that the death of the FA Cup has been largely exaggerated. Though surely normal service would be resumed on Monday night…
Meetings between Wigan Athletic and Manchester City in the FA Cup have become something of a modern phenomenon, defying, as they do, all rhyme and reason. The meeting between the two sides in the 2013 final – where Manchester City were the reigning Premier League champions, if only for another week, whist Wigan were on their way to the Championship – is the ultimate cup upset for the Snapchat generation. Ben Watson’s goal in the last minute of normal time to secure Wigan’s first ever major trophy will live long in the memory of Latics fans, but incredibly they went to the Etihad the following season and dumped City out at the quarter-finals stage. At that point, Wigan were mid-table in the Championship and City were on their way to picking up a second Premier League title. This time around, the two sides have diverged even further. Wigan might be shoe-ins for promotion this season, but they find themselves in the third tier, while City have elevated themselves to one of the best sides in Europe and have practically sewn up the Premier League before the end of Winter. They’ve only been beaten twice in all competitions in this campaign, and only Wolves and Crystal Palace have prevented them from scoring. Even for the Latics, who’ve clearly cast some kind of voodoo over Pep Guardiola’s side, progression to the quarters was the tallest of orders. Guardiola’s teamsheet suggested the Spaniard was taking the prospect of Paul Cook’s side seriously, with Sergio Aguero leading the line and Leroy Sane returning to the starting line-up despite suffering what appeared to be a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. They sure are some good vitamins. Wigan were missing Egyptian international Sam Morsy, with veteran David Perkins drafted in to replace him. Cook’s side were aggressive from the off, and striker Will Grigg sensed early on that Danilo and his defensive colleagues were there to be got at. Disaster struck just before the half-hour for Wigan as Nick Powell was forced off with injury – the midfield string-puller had been instrumental in victory over West Ham in round four, and offered Latics’ best hopes of pulling off an upset here. For all Wigan’s attempts to get the ball forward, it didn’t disguise the fact there were up against it at the back, as City dominated possession, and a smart save from Chris Walton was required to keep out Ilkay Gundogan’s long-range effort. Still, with the scores level approaching half-time, Cook will have been pleased by his side’s first half effort. Then came the game’s first defining moment. Max Power picked up the ball around thirty yards from his own goal, before Fabian Delph dived in with a robust challenge. Referee Anthony Taylor appeared to take a yellow card from his pocket as Wigan’s players surrounded him, and then out of nowhere flashed a red in Delph’s direction. A clumsy, nasty-looking challenge undoubtedly, but Delph can feel hard done by. Whether Taylor was influenced by the opposition is another question entirely, but even with ten men at the break, City will have backed themselves to win the tie. After Cook and Guardiola had finished exchanging frank views on the first half action in the tunnel, the two sides reappeared for the second half, and once again City began to pin back the hosts. With Wigan looking less and less likely to score as Grigg cut a forlorn figure up front, Guardiola introduced Kevin De Bruyne to the fray, in the hope that the Belgian’s feet could unpick the League One side’s lock. Within minutes of his arrival, De Bruyne had flashed dangerous looking crosses into the area, and Wigan were forced into some last ditch, backs to the wall defending. With City playing such a high line, their defence practically setting up camp in the Wigan half, there was always the infintesimal chance of being caught out by a long ball and, with a little over ten minutes to play, Callum Elder launched a ball into the channel for Grigg to chase. Kyle Walker, looking every bit the cool, calm, and collected £50m full-back casually allowed the ball to roll under his foot, allowing Grigg to power past hit, cut inside and roll a shot around Claudio Bravo to give Wigan the lead. An absolute classic of the giantkilling genre. Bedlam ensued inside the DW Stadium. But immediately the backs were against the wall again as wave after wave of City attacks crashed towards Walton’s goal. Despite a glut of corners in the final few minutes, Cook’s side held on to record the result of the competition this season, and one of the great FA Cup shocks. A pitch invasion at full-time resulted in some fairly unpleasant scenes involving Sergio Aguero, but nothing could take away from an heroic performance from Wigan Athletic. So often the punchline to jokes about poor attendances, rugby league, and Dave Whelan’s leg, their modern history has provided some incredible stories, and the latest chapter ranks highly among them. Cook will rightfully fancy his side’s chances against Southampton in the quarter-finals, and suddenly a competition that looked as though it may turn out a damp squib this time around has been lit up by a little club from Greater Manchester. Up the Tics.