By Louis Gibbon
It is becoming a cliché and I will accept that, but it is hard to write an article on this weekend’s football without using the four words ‘magic of the cup’. As I stood in the sun in the Hammersmith End at a full Craven Cottage, it perplexed me more than ever as to why countless teams had gone out pitting reserves in the early rounds of the FA Cup. By playing their first team throughout the preliminary stages, Fulham had earned a massive revenue-earning tie against a top Premier League side. The scenario was the same at the Kirklees and Molineux, two stadiums full for the first time in years. Again, this weekend showed the cup is far from dead. In fact, it is probably the most alive it has been in years.
The tie itself was a mismatch, but only because Tottenham were rewarded for putting out a full-strength side, leaving them three wins away from a first major trophy in nine years. Fulham attempted to play without a recognised striker and implement the passing game that has brought them success in the Championship this year, but it left them far too exposed in the middle. Kane and Eriksen had a field day as a result, putting Thursday’s Europa League disappointment against Gent behind them with a 3-0 win.
The resurgence of the cup has been spearheaded by Lincoln, who continued their incredible run with a 1-0 win away at Burnley. It was one of the biggest shocks in FA cup history, as little Lincoln went to the team with the second-best home record in the top division and produced a resolute display. They were rewarded with a late goal, albeit from a corner that should not have stood (but we will ignore that for the sake of romance). And if that David and Goliath moment was not sweet enough, Joey Barton made it all that sweeter for the neutrals by activating full Barton mode – scratching, stamping and play-acting against a non-league side.
Elsewhere on Saturday, a well-organised Huddersfield earned a replay at the Etihad with a 0-0 draw, providing an unnecessary fixture headache for Guardiola. Middlesbrough played out an entertaining 3-2 win against an impressive Oxford side, and Millwall defeated a Premier League opponent for the third time in the cup with a 1-0 victory against ten-man Leicester. The Premier League champions continued their freefall, and again Ranieri’s tinkering was frustrating. Why the Italian manager would choose to rest his entire team for a game against Sevilla in a competition his team are never going to win bemuses me. Whether it is winnable or not, why not try and stop the rot, gaining some impetus before Wednesday night?
Saturday evening went how most probably expected, with Wolves giving a good account of themselves but the quality of Chelsea eventually showing. As the pattern goes, Chelsea were rewarded for playing first-team players, and it was two regulars in Costa and Pedro who scored the goals.
What will be most worrying for title rivals is the fact that despite Chelsea making seven changes for the game the side resembled a first team. The idea that Chelsea, therefore, are only in the position they are thanks to the lack of Champions League football is a myth. Unlike Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, Chelsea have the strength in depth to compete on multiple fronts, with players like Zouma, Fàbregas and Willian currently deputising. At this point, you would be a brave man to bet against Conte winning the double in his first season.
Man United scraped through against Blackburn with a 2-1 win, with the myth that they are somehow ‘back’ under Mourinho continuing to circle. Nonetheless, Ibrahimovic came off the bench and provided a very impressive finish to win the tie.
As for Monday night, the main talking point was a man eating a pie – the mark of a dull 2-0 win for the Gunners. It has come out today that the reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw has resigned over the incident following the announced FA enquiry. Sad, in truth, but at the end of the day, Shaw broke the rules and regrettably has had to pay the consequences.
Sunday night’s draw for the quarter-finals has thrown up some exciting-looking ties. Mourinho returns to the Bridge to attempt to avenge his 4-0 humiliation earlier in the year. Lincoln have a dream tie at the Emirates, as Arsenal are bizarrely tasked with beating a second non-league side in succession to get to Wembley. In a game which will presumably be moved to an early kick-off Millwall go to Tottenham in a London derby, a policeman’s nightmare, while the winner of Huddersfield vs Man City will travel to the Riverside to face Middlesbrough.
In recent years the FA cup has felt like a declining relationship, but Lincoln have acted as the restorative weekend away in Paris. Hopefully, this can be the turning point, and next time sides like Everton, Stoke and Bournemouth will think twice before playing reserves and getting knocked out in the early rounds, letting both the fans and this great competition down.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons