We’ve now reached the late point in the season at which there’s only a handful of teams still remaining in the FA Cup. This means that we are lucky enough to enjoy both cup and Premier League action on the same day. Yesterday saw 3 of the 4 matches in the FA Cup Quarter-final stage take place, and there’s plenty to discuss from comebacks, surprise results and disappointing refereeing decisions.
Before we get on to all that, however, we should at least mention the few games that were played in the Premier League. Like in the cup, three matches occured and there were more than just a few goals. Despite still being rock bottom of the Premier League, you could say that Huddersfield have seen something of an improvement in recent weeks, perhaps just slight but an improvement nonetheless. They faced a trip to the London Stadium to face an on and off West Ham side. It’s fair to say that the Hammers have produced their best performances at home this season and have greatly struggled on the road in comparison. Playing at home yesterday against the League’s bottom club would have made West Ham clear favourites. Things started well for them but quickly went downhill as Huddersfield replied to Noble’s penalty just two minutes after it went in, and added two more, finding themselves 1-3 up in the 65th minute. West Ham have very little to play for in terms of league position and that was a potential contributing factor to the current scoreline. Yet, West Ham have looked dangerous going forward all season and just as well given how flimsy their defence has been at times. It was their attack that came out on top yet again in this one, Hernandez scoring two of the three goals that came in the space of just over a quarter of an hour. They’ll be pleased with the final 4-3 scoreline but Pellegrini wouldn’t have wanted to find his side in such a precarious position to start with.
Like West Ham, Leicester found themselves in a difficult situation against Burnley, Maguire being sent off just moments after kick-off for a last man challenge on Gudmundsson. However, also in a similar fashion to West Ham, Leicester didn’t let this stop them getting a positive result from the game. They opened the scoring through new fan-favouite James Maddison. This lead didn’t last long though with Burnley youngster Dwight McNeil equalising just 5 minutes later. McNeil looks to be developing into a very promising prospect. We saw him cause Liverpool starlet Alexander-Arnold more than a few problems just a couple of weeks ago and the fact that he’s now adding goals to his game is a really positive sign for him and Burnley as a whole. Much to their disappointment, this goal wasn’t even enough to secure them a single point. Unsurprisingly, Leicester’s 10 men didn’t look like scoring a second for the entire game but if they were going to snatch one, it always seemed likely that it would stem from a set-piece. That’s exactly what happened when Morgan headed home the winner in stoppage time. The final Premier League game was between Bournemouth and Newcastle. Newcastle have enjoyed a recent resurgence in form, previously looking to be at significant risk of suffering relegation. Things continued in this manner, Rondon maintaining his personal goalscoring form with another goal just before half-time. Things haven’t been so great for their opponents. Bournemouth have been on their fair share of heavy defeats this season but they’ve consitistently produced results at home against teams outside the top 6. They looked almost certain to do this yet again; two Joshua King goals flipped the match on it’s head. It would have been enough to secure the Cherries all three points were it not for an extremely late wonderstrike from former Bournemouth star Matt Ritchie. This result was probably fair in the end but will feel like a defeat for Eddie Howe’s men.
Now to the FA Cup. Much of the key action was seen in the games involving the two Manchester sides. No disrespect to Swansea but Manchester City’s visit to the Welsh side would have looked to be quite straightforward. City have been steamrolling opponents in recent times and in cup competitions entirely this season. Shockingly, things were far from comfortable for them in this game, Swansea looking more like the side currently sitting top of the Premier league. They’re second goal of the first half could be described as City-esque. Former City fringe player, Celina, curled a shot into the top corner following some wonderful build up play from the Swans. Swansea were in dreamland, 2-0 up against one of the best teams in Europe. You would have expected City to come out all guns blazing in the second half but they were arguably less threatening than in the first. Having said this, when Bernardo Silva finally fired a perfect strike with the outside of his boot into the far corner, it always looked like this could be a match changing moment. Guardiola’s side piled on the pressure, the introductions of Sterling and Aguero also helping their cause. It was, in fact, Sterling who bought his side a penalty despite Carter-Vickers getting a clear touch on the ball. Swansea keeper Nordfeldt was extremely unlucky with the penalty as well. Aguero slipped and struck it against the post only to see it rebound off Nordfeldt’s back and into the net. Their third goal of the game shouldn’t have stood either. Aguero was standing in an offisde position prior to guiding a diving header into the bottom corner. Whilst they did dominate the second half, City will consider themselves lucky to have progressed to the Semi-finals.
The football in this match was outstanding from both sides so it’s disappointing that the main talking points surround mistakes from the officials. Given the very fine margins we see in football, you can’t expect them to get every decision spot on. This is the exact reason why VAR has been introduced and if anyone is going to face criticism, it should be the authorities for not always using it, especially in matches of this magnitude. The FA have come to the decision that VAR should only be used in Premier league stadiums feeling that using it in smaller stadiums would set the precedent that it should be available in every single professional match. The huge fiancial costs that this would bring and the fact that a lot of stadiums simply don’t have the facilites that make using this technology possible does make the FA’s decision somewhat understandable. Yet, restricting it to just Premier League stadiums seems ridiculous. VAR has been promoted as something that will benefit football entirely, but these benefits currently only apply to Premier League sides? Swansea were a top tier side just last season so surely their stadium, along with virtually all the others in the Chamiponship, would be capable of facilitating VAR. By only using it in Premier League stadiums, the FA are suggesting that any matches below that aren’t of significant enough importance to warrant the cost that comes with using VAR. Whilst this also seems ridiculous, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt in having this view. Yet, this doesn’t eliminate the issue of exactly what we saw last night. In the late rounds of cup competitions there’s a great chance that a Premier League side will be travelling to a team a tier or two below themselves. A Premier League team is involved and the game is just a few rounds earlier than the cup final but VAR still isn’t used. As spectators, we don’t know the ins and outs and aren’t totally aware about the size of the FA’s budget, but the way things are right now just seem so unfair on the teams outside the Premier League. It’s extremely disappointing for a team to miss out on a win due to incorrect decisions from the officials in any match, even more so when the underdogs have played so well against a much bigger team, just like Swansea did last night.
This issue aside, let’s get back to talking about actual football. Yesterday evening’s late match saw high-flying Wolves host Manchester United. This game saw the return of a few key players for Solskjaer, something they were in desperate need of following the various injury woes they’ve had in recent times. Martial and Lingard started in attack whilst Herrera returned in central midfield. Wolves displayed how capable they are defensively against Chelsea in the Premier League so United would have been aware that it would take some great play to break them down. Whilst the on fire Lukaku was absent through injury, United still appeared to have enough in attack for this one. The first half was fairly lacklustre, the only real chance falling to Diogo Jota, who was unable to curl a shot past the onrushing Romero. Very little changed, for United at least, in the second half. Pogba didn’t look his normal self whilst both Martial and Lingard had virtually no impact on their returns to the side. In truth, Wolves were dominant and it was just a question of whether they’d be able to find a goal. Jimenez did that when he tucked one past Romero on the spin. It wasn’t long before they added another too. Jota beat Shaw for pace and strength before beating the Argentinian keeper at the near post. This put the game to bed entirely. Rashford did score a late consolation goal but the full-time whistle came almost immediately after the resulting kick-off. United were trying to overplay all game and their goal showed that. All it took was for Shaw to bomb past his man and get the ball into the box for the dangerous Rashford. Their side is full of pace in the wide areas making it difficult to understand why they played so slowly and made no real attempt to get in behind. This result leaves United competing in just the Premier League and Champions League, a top 4 position surely being the main priortiy for Solskjaer now.
United’s departure from the competition leave’s City as even greater favourites to secure their second domestic trophy of the season. Wolves will be their main competitors having already knocked Liverpool and now Manchester United out the competition. They will find out their Semi-final fate later today once the match between Millwall and Brighton has been played. City are fortunate to be one of the names in the pot but they won’t care, the quadruple still a very real possibilty for Guardiola’s side.