Date published: Monday 11th January 2021 10:36

FA Cup Marine

1. First the elephant in the room. Should this third round have even been played? The FA Cup’s diminished status has been a cliché for decades, but never has it felt more valid or more complete. Empty grounds and scratch sides simply ticking the box of fulfilling fixtures in a competition whose one-off cancellation could have provided the buffer so utterly absent in this most brutal of seasons.

And that’s before even getting into the specific dangers of playing the third round right now. Everyone involved in English football deserves criticism for the utter lack of foresight put into the planning of this season. However difficult it was to put together, the head-in-the-sand approach was never going to work. That no concession was made either to the shortened timeframe available or the very real possibility of further delays and increased postponements seems bizarre. The Carabao Cup should clearly have been given a year off – especially as it looks like the banter option of just awarding it to Manchester City would have done the trick – but with that now off the cards, continuing with the FA Cup in the face of mounting evidence of the problems it could cause short and long term looks a huge, huge risk. (This, it should be noted, is far from just an English problem – those two international windows in October and November looked then and look now utterly preposterous.)

It’s not football’s fault they didn’t predict things would be quite so bad in the country now – far worse than during the first wave. It is football’s fault they didn’t even consider the possibility or plan for it. Throwing together different teams from different levels of the game with wildly different testing regimes seems at a moment when England stands on the precipice of a genuine NHS-overwhelming national emergency, with 1000 deaths a day now baked in until and unless a seat-of-the-pants vaccine strategy pays off, is surely madness. Yet again, the approach has been to place heads in sand and hope for the best. The English approach, in football and wider, has been to place the (admittedly desperate) financial situation above all others. But the game’s finances, like the country’s, will be hit far harder if the virus overwhelms everything.

We can only hope that the third-round weekend doesn’t cause any further outbreaks at clubs around the country or even in the population at large after the queasy sights of people lining the streets of Crosby waiting for a bus. Experience suggests otherwise. Playing the third round to keep football’s finances going only for playing the third round to bring the whole season to its knees would be very on brand for England 2020/21. Play out to help out.

2. Right, that’s enough from Rona365. We’ve said our piece. The games – for the most part – went ahead, so let’s turn to them. And one of the great ironies is that the game that best highlighted the farce of this third round also gave us one of its most ‘FA Cup’ moments thanks to 17-year-old Louie Barry and his goal for Villa’s kids against Liverpool and – arguably even more so than the goal – his interview afterwards.

That’s the good stuff.

— MUNDIAL (H) (@MundialMag) January 9, 2021

But Barry’s moment in the sun apart, it’s still it’s hard to shift the bad taste that what should have been one of the ties of the round was instead reduced to a non-event. When the draw was made, it caught the eye as any third-round meeting between two bigger guns will. This one had added frisson thanks to that daft 7-2 from earlier in the season and the fact Villa’s league form marked them out as true dark horses for this competition. And then it all got taken away from us as Villa – in a blackly comic twist on the infamous League Cup meeting between these two clubs last season – had to put out a team of kids. They performed admirably to prevent things from becoming completely ludicrous against a strong Liverpool, but it was no FA Cup tie.

3. Easy – and fun – to take the mick out of Jurgen Klopp’s team selection as Liverpool beat the brains out of their opponents in a competition for kids. He’s been the most outspoken of all the managers – possibly Jose Mourinho excepted – about the assorted problems of cramming 10 months of fixtures into nine months with minimal pre-season at one end and an international tournament at the other. The player welfare implications are obvious, and Liverpool have suffered more than most to injuries – albeit neither of the two major ones, to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez – being little to do with workload or weariness.

But really, this selection makes sense. For one, Klopp will have prepared for this one expecting to face Aston Villa, seven points off the top of the Premier League with two games in hand and, again, 7-2 winners over Liverpool when last they met. This isn’t like being drawn against a non-league side and having weeks to prepare for it. Liverpool’s preparation until the last few days will have been on the basis of a difficult evening against a very good team.

Liverpool have also ‘only’ played six games in the last month and nine days separated this game from the next – against Manchester United. With three off-colour performances in a row against West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton, it’s no wonder Klopp would have wanted to turn that momentum around ahead of facing United. The quirk is that this competition that clogs the fixture list this season has actually come around at a time when Liverpool didn’t desperately need a rest.

4. The total opposite of that attitude came from Leeds. Picked out as one of five teams we thought should take the Cup seriously, they… did not take it seriously. They were lucky to be level at half-time against Crawley, then made three shambolic half-time substitutions and were soundly beaten by a team that actually wanted to be there. Crawley are clearly a far superior side to Marine, but the difference between Leeds’ and Spurs’ attitude in their games was clear. And Spurs, with a Carabao Cup final to come as well as Europa League involvement and the decent possibility of a third league postponement coming up who have more reason to sack it off.

It was an unprofessional effort from Leeds, and desperately disappointing. The problem with the ‘Five teams to take it seriously’ feature is that we write it every year, and then every year Chelsea or Arsenal just win it anyway. But there are enough reasons to think this year could be different. The Villa-Liverpool game is evidence of that – even the toughest of ties can turn into a virtual walkover. Actual walkovers also can’t be ruled out. Going back to Spurs, you only have to look at their run to the Carabao final to see how things can open up for you this year above all others.

Leeds aren’t going to trouble the top six and they aren’t going to be relegated. They could have at least tried to look like they might make a go of this competition.

5. Especially against a side that brought a reality TV star off the bench to play the final three minutes of injury time on national television to prove once and for all that signing Mark Wright was in no way a publicity stunt. Still, at least he didn’t eat a pie.

6. But whatever else may be problematic about Crawley as FA Cup magic-makers, the sight of Nick Tsaroulla getting emotional when discussing his fine opening goal against Leeds was pure Cup Magic.

Released by Spurs at 18 after a car crash, Tsaroulla is a reminder of the stories behind so many of these lower-league players, and the fact his first goal in senior football was a) such a very good one, b) on the BBC and c) against Premier League opponents, was genuinely lovely stuff. Years of effort and pain and sacrifice went into that moment. The FA Cup can still deliver.

7. And Spurs showed this too. Even while professionally and convincingly if somewhat drearily ending Marine’s dream, they still managed to provide their own little moment of magic as 16-year-old Alfie Devine scored their fifth and final goal to become the club’s youngest ever goalscorer. He was born two months after Jose Mourinho’s original ‘Special One’ press conference. Thinking about it, that is actually a little bit depressing. We were feeling quite chipper about it all before that and now feel a bit sad. Classic Jose. Maybe Danny Drinkwater was right.

8. Chelsea and Manchester City made predictably predictable straightforward progress to the fourth round on Sunday. You can read more on Chelsea here. City for their part went 3-0 up in barely half an hour against Birmingham and then understandably decided to conserve their energy for more significant battles to come as they compete on four fronts in what promises to be a brutally hectic few months.

But let’s have a word for Riyad Mahrez’s pass for Kevin De Bruyne to set up Bernardo Silva’s second goal. It barely travelled 10 yards but was played with such insouciance and so much of what Glenn Hoddle would inevitably describe as “swazz” to somehow defy physics and curve into De Bruyne’s path rather than behind for a goal-kick that it simultaneously convinced us of the merits of both playing the FA Cup amidst pandemic horror and also the inherently objectionable term ‘pre-assist’. It was a really, really, really good pass.

9. Things go from bad to worse for Sam Allardyce. Sure, he got his customary point at Anfield as everyone expected, but it’s been a sh*tshow everywhere else. Obviously, there’s no danger that he actually hangs around to have relegation formally on his record should things get that far, but he’ll know. We’ll all know. Nothing that you expect to happen to a side when Sam Allardyce takes over is currently happening to West Brom. They are leaky as all hell.

While exit from the FA Cup is, on the face of it, not a huge problem and even in the grim realities of life at the foot of the Premier League potentially of benefit, this was also a huge opportunity spurned to record just a third win in any competition this season and get some kind of momentum to take back into the league campaign. They’ve got season-defining games against Fulham, Sheffield United and Burnley coming up in the next eight games, but those are dotted around games against Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United. A win – any win – would at least have been good for morale heading into that little lot.

10. As one crisis worsens, another recedes further. Arsenal are okay. For a bit. The margins were fine against Newcastle, from Andy Carroll’s miss at the end of 90 minutes to the increasingly impressive Emile Smith Rowe’s journey from red card to VAR reprieve to game-breaking opening goal.

It took the extra 30 minutes and a couple of hairy moments against a Newcastle side devoid of anything even approaching ambition, but that’s now four wins in a row for Arsenal from the depths of mid-December. Carry on like this, and even Willian might come good.

11. A hell of a scare for Everton, who must surely be viewing this year’s competition as being as good a chance to end a 26-year wait for silverware as any in the intervening period given their own improvement and the unique challenges of this campaign. But having taken the lead against Championship strugglers Rotherham, who had lost seven straight away games, the Toffees spent the rest of regulation time on the back foot and were lucky to even get to extra-time after Matt Olosunde’s first senior goal brought the Millers level shortly after half-time.

All’s well that ends well, though, and Everton must fancy their chances.

12. But if there is to be a rare winner from outside the Big Six (well, Five really, given Spurs’ ferociously poor record in this competition and propensity for semi-final disaster) then the best bet is surely Leicester. Who would, in any sane world, already be considered part of the Big Six but aren’t because reasons. They’ve got just about enough depth to their squad to make it work, with even the frankly cruel insistence on continuing to make James Justin not just play out of position but to play every single game between now and the end of time rewarded with a goal in a comfortable 4-0 win at Stoke.

13. Leicester’s team selection continued a theme across the weekend of slightly stronger team selections than we might have expected. We’ve laid out the reasons for this seemingly counter-intuitive decision in the most fixture-congested season ever attempted, but there is a definite sense of this tournament being up for grabs. Or doomed to never be completed making all those endeavours – and these 2500 words – completely pointless and leaving Leeds laughing at the rest of us. That Marcelo Bielsa, always one step ahead.

14. Replays aren’t ever coming back, are they? Not an earth-shattering revelation, I grant you. Like Debenhams or office-working or getting through a single day without once being overcome by existential dread, the rona has only hastened the inevitable demise of something that was already well on the way out anyway, but still. The logistical benefits are clear – and not just this season – and really once the second and third replays were done away with the fun had gone out of it anyway. Extra-time and penalties are here to stay – until some bright spark points out we could probably do away with the extra-time. Where the Carabao leads, the FA Cup will follow.

15. Happy Birthday, Deb.

Watching the game from your back garden… 👌

The 𝐦𝐚𝐠𝐢𝐜 of the cup ✨#THFC ⚪️ #COYS

— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) January 10, 2021

16. Overall, the weekend ends with a sense that the FA Cup got away with it even if there may be catastrophic consequences – inside football and out – waiting down the line. The weakened teams put out by necessity created their own cheering stories in the efforts of Villa’s youngsters and Chorley’s victory over Derby. The Marine game went almost perfectly for all concerned – although, and sorry to mention it again, we really can’t shake the sense of foreboding dwelling deep within our gut about those street-lining scenes – and the biggest teams, with varying degrees of competence and conviction, have all made it through to the next round. Enough ‘shocks’ and feelgood stories to keep the Magic of the Cup just about alive on a weekend that could (still could…) have extinguished it for good, but without descending into the farce it really could have been. Still don’t think it should have happened at all, but what did happen was pretty damn good.

Dave Tickner

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