Well, time to take a collective breath after an astonishing and frankly preposterous week of cup football, as another round of Premier League clashes loom.
We had the Premier-League-Comedy-Roadshow in the FA Cup (headlined by Chelsea, also starring Manchester City, Southampton, Swansea and Tottenham) including giant-killings a plenty – a weekend that was certainly one for the neutrals. There was also the rough and tumble of the Capital One Cup semi-finals, which weighed in with its share of high drama and handbags (who would win the duel between Diego Costa and Martin Skrtel? Costa could probably eat six cans of corned beef and ask for more so my money is on him). But there’s no time to rest, as the next round of league fixtures is almost upon us, with some fascinating games in prospect.
Premier League action
The early fixture sees two teams who had their feet up, watching the magic (or madness – depending on your allegiance) of the FA Cup unfold, so they should be raring to go in an attempt to improve upon recent poor form. Hull City have found themselves sliding towards the relegation trap door at an alarming rate with just eight points from the last available 30, heaping pressure on Steve Bruce. Bruce has ruled himself out of the vacant manager post at Newcastle, seeing the way clear for John Carver to continue having his initials emblazoned on a black and white tracksuit, until the end of the season at least. With Newcastle claiming the same amount of points as Hull over the same period of time, this is the sort of match that both teams will be looking at as an opportunity to get back to winning ways.
The man who stole all the headlines in this fixture last season has now retreated from the storm of St James Park to the comparative calm of Selhurst Park and is currently enjoying a fantastic start to his tenure at Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew’s reign could hardly have started any better – four wins out of four in all competitions and his side will be buoyed with confidence following their cup success at, team of the season so far, Southampton. They will certainly fancy their chances of collecting three points and leapfrogging the team directly above them in the table, Everton. After such a promising start to his time at Goodison Park, Martinez is currently finding it difficult to implement his style of play, whilst achieving consistency. This will likely prove another tough test for Martinez’s beleaguered team, who have a tricky looking fixture list over the next month, including the resumption of the poisoned chalice that is the Europa League.
Merseyside neighbours Liverpool were unbeaten in their previous 10 games in all competitions before the mid-week grudge match against Chelsea and will have their hands full against West Ham – these two sides are huddling together, just outside the European spots, in the league table, and both have aspirations of playing European football next season. Liverpool’s season is in such stark contrast to last, when they had less cup distractions and forwards that could not stop scoring. This year, despite their recent unbeaten run, they have struggled without the novelty of a regular goal-scoring striker. West Ham have had a great season so far and it would be quite something to witness Big Sam pit his wits against the likes of Real Madrid in the big cup, and show them what they have been missing all these years, although Hammers fans would surely be happy enough with a jaunt into Europe as FA Cup winners.
Another manager with dreams of trying his luck against Europe’s elite is Louis Van Gaal, as the erratic story of Manchester United’s season goes on. On Friday night, it seemed the joke was on them as they were held to a draw by a superb performance from League Two side Cambridge United (a result that then looked pretty good by Sunday). You would expect the Red Devils to succeed in the replay, but before that they face the return fixture of one of the early season’s crazier results. Will Nigel Pearson’s resilient Foxes be sneaking away from Old Trafford with a crucial three points, or will United make amends for their dramatic slump in the face of all that Jamie Vardy could throw at them (including himself to the ground)? Another 5-3 please!
Last time out Stoke snuck away from the aforementioned Leicester with all three points and sit comfortably in mid-table. Neither will they find themselves in the European or relegation places at the end of the season, so Mark Hughes will surely be going all out for an assault on the FA Cup. Even without the injured Bojan Krkic, now ruled out for the season with a knee injury, the Potters are likely to be too strong for QPR, whose away form has been abysmal. Unless an improvement is forthcoming, Harry Redknapp’s Rangers are a good bet to occupy a bottom three place come May.
In a similar neck of the woods, Burnley continue their mini run of ‘relegation six pointers’ with a trip to Sunderland, currently in the midst of an indifferent run of form. Burnley have suddenly found their shooting boots, but unfortunately they have seemingly been studying Arsenal’s defensive videos from last season away games against title challengers, while Sunderland are struggling to hit the proverbial barn door, with seven goals in 10 games, two of which came in the defeat at Manchester City. Both clubs have shown faith during the mid-season ‘transfer (managerial culling) window’, opting for stability to see them through the congested waters of the lower half of the table, where six points separate the bottom nine teams.
Conversely, the immediate impact of a new manager is apparent at The Hawthorns, with the power of Pulis, steadying wobbly West Brom in his unbeaten run of results so far. Such is Tony Pulis’s pedigree now, a top half finish would be of no surprise for the Baggies, who will relish the visit from Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino will have mixed feelings about cup competitions this week – his team seemingly in control in the latter stages of the FA Cup match against Leicester, only to contrive to lose, complete with a last minute goalkeeper calamity. They then almost repeated this trick in their dramatic Capital One Cup semi-final against Sheffield United before finally prevailing – which Tottenham will turn up on Saturday is anyone’s guess.
Talking of calamities, who would have thought that the top two teams in English football would be the FA Cup fall guys? The manner of their defeats will perhaps rankle the most, after all Chelsea were 2-0 up. To subsequently lose by two goals, even with multiple personnel changes, is, if not a ‘disgrace’, then certainly careless. At least there was redemption in their midweek Capital One Cup scuffle to take the edge off the defeat to Bradford. Manchester City’s 2-0 home humbling to Middlesbrough, coming off the back of defeat by the same scoreline to Arsenal, will sting, and it is imperative that Pellegrini focuses his team for this crunch match. In the scheme of things, both managers would probably settle for a draw when the two sides clash on Saturday, although the emphasis to dictate play will be on City – so expect Frank Lampard, as a second-half substitute, to have a major impact once again.
An oddity – two teams that won in the FA Cup last weekend! Arsenal did manage to play to the cameras particularly well, at times threatening to run riot against Brighton, only then to concede sloppy goals, much to the delight of Robbie Savage and the watching hordes, dreaming of another Premier League side imploding. As for Villa, they saw off the impressive Championship leaders Bournemouth, and gave Paul Lambert a much needed boost. After five successive league games without a goal, however, a trip to the Emirates is probably the last thing that he needs, unless he can instil some of the spirit shown in this fixture last year.
Finally, two teams that will be bitterly disappointed by their cup exploits last week, as both would have been good bets for the cup. Southampton have seemingly recovered from their pre-festive dip in form, so their defeat to their former manager’s flying Eagles will have been hard to take. Swansea, smarting from Wilfried Bony’s departure, bookended their cup tie at Blackburn with a pair of red cards, and also rounded off a day to forget with keeper Lukasz Fabianski having a last minute flap. It wasn’t a good weekend for goalkeepers associated with the Welsh club, after previous stopper, Tottenham’s Michel Vorm’s own unfortunate last gasp breakdancing faux pas against Leicester. Both sides will be looking to get back on the horse as soon as possible.
In fact, there are several teams who will be keen to bury the memory of last weekend’s cup action and will be relieved to return to the sanctuary of the Premier League. Perhaps until Saturday evening that is.