The quarterfinals weren’t special, but Wasim believes we’ll see the magic of the FA Cup in the semis and the final as Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City duke it out for honours in the world’s oldest cup competition.
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How will Manchester City respond after their first defeat under Pep Guardiola? Will either Chelsea or Leicester finally kickstart their season? Who will be Juve’s closest challengers in Serie A? These are the questions facing the big football matches on Saturday.
Chelsea vs Leicester City
On one side is a team where N’Golo Kante’s role is not yet clearly defined. On the other side is a team that are clearly feeling his absence. Of course there are other players of quality in this game to make it about more than one man, but it is Kante that perfectly symbolizes the undefined starts that Chelsea and Leicester have made in this nascent season.
For the champions, this was always going to be a tricky campaign. Leicester lost only three times in the entirety of their wondrous league winning campaign. They have already matched that tally in seven games this time around. It’s likely that there will be a few more defeats as they deal with opposition who are smartening up to their tactics, as well as the integration of new players into the new system. The latter factor may yet end up making Leicester a better team in the long run. In the interim though, they have been dominated and dismantled in their meetings with big teams, as witnessed against Manchester United and Liverpool.
Whether Chelsea are a big team or not is still to be decided. For a side that were champions in 2015, they have a squad that rather alarmingly asks a lot of questions. How is John Terry still their best centre back? Why is Branislav Ivanovic still playing at right back despite being repeatedly roasted on the flank for almost two years? Is Cesc Fabregas worthy of a starting place? Do Chelsea have the potential to unlock defences without Fabregas? Will Eden Hazard ever replicate his league-winning form?
Many expected Antonio Conte to be the man to solve these problems and make Chelsea a team to fear again. Alas, even the Italian strategist cannot fix such problems overnight. To his credit, Chelsea do play with a greater intensity compared to last season, but some of the comedic defending from Gary Cahill in particular cannot be legislated for.
Perhaps we’ll only see the best of these two teams later in the season. For now, these two Italian managers will only be concerned with the three points. Who will prevail between the wise old head of Ranieri and the young strategist in Conte?
Napoli vs Roma
You can call them bridesmaids or the two step sisters, but the harsh reality that Napoli and Roma have to deal with is that in their current guise, their most feasible aims are to be the second best team in Italy after Juventus. It’s not that these two lack for talent, creativity or stature. On their day, the football they play is amongst the finest seen in Europe. It is their inability to play consistently and furthermore, a lack of desire to get the points when they are not playing well that stunts them.
Flair and inconsistency. These two aspects make it hard for any writer to preview such a match. Napoli are extremely difficult to beat at home, while Roma have been quite poor on their travels this season. History would suggest Napoli are favourites, but there are other factors at play.
Arkadiusz Milik, who started the season so well is now out for six months after getting injured playing for Poland. It’s a big blow. In theory they have a great replacement in Manolo Gabbiadini. However, the Italian has been second choice for so long that they are doubts about his confidence and over his ability to integrate into the style of Maurizio Sarri. Nevertheless, with the likes of Dries Mertens and José Callejón in good form, Napoli should possess enough to trouble a notoriously fickle Roma defence.
Roma seem to have found a spark up front. While Francesco Totti’s sublime playmaking is still creating goals and chances for the Giallorossi, it is Edin Dzeko who has stepped up when it comes to end product. The Bosnian had a much-maligned first campaign in the capital, but seems to be rejuvenated after a good pre-season. His link up play with Totti has been superb, but it is also his understanding with wingers Mohamed Salah and Diego Perotti that has been crucial in allowing Roma to constantly apply pressure on opposing defences.
The fact that the two attacks have been highlighted tells its own story when it comes to this fixture. Luciano Spalletti and Maurizio Sarri are two astute tacticians and in many ways they have improved many aspects of their respective teams. Unfortunately, defensive woes still bog the two giants. Ultimately the result may just come down to who makes the least mistakes at the back.
Manchester City vs Everton
Matches between these two have always been fun to watch in recent seasons and it should be no different this time around. In fact, with two new managers who are completely different from their predecessors in both, tactical flexibility and discipline, the two clubs are playing some excellent football. Or should that be were playing excellent football?
You got the sense watching these two teams in the two weeks leading up to the international break that perhaps momentum was stalling. City were lucky to escape with a victory at Swansea when they were pressed and harassed. Celtic then scored three against them, before they were finally pressurized into submission by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Everton lost an easy EFL Cup match at home to Norwich, were then non-descript at Bournemouth and were extremely fortuitous to get a point at home against a dominant Crystal Palace side.
It is against the backdrop of those last two weeks, that Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman have to reignite their teams. It seems to churlish to suggest that a team with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and David Silva are missing just one player, but when that player is a Kevin De Bruyne in form, it is a huge absence. Everton may not provide City with the same pressing test they faced against Celtic and Tottenham, but nevertheless Koeman will ensure his team’s defence isn’t breached easily. Could this finally be the day where Guardiola trusts Leroy Sane with a start? A solution is certainly needed and all eyes will be on the legendary manager to see how he adjusts.
Meanwhile Koeman will count on Yannick Bolasie, Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman to torment City’s vulnerable flanks. With Guardiola himself admitting defending against height is a problem, Romelu Lukaku will be licking his chops in anticipation of the battle against John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi. Certainly, Everton possess enough of a scoring threat to remain alive in the game even if City dominate.
There will be a lot of observant eyes scrutinizing the action at the Etihad. City should be favourites at home, but the battle between Guardiola and Koeman is no straightforward matter.
Everton kept their season alive after an excellent win over Chelsea in the FA Cup quarterfinals.The following are the player ratings for the match.
Joel Robles 7
Had little to do, but was effective when called upon. Did well to tip over a Willian free kick, but rather than any spectacular saves it was two moments that combined decision-making and positioning that were pivotal. After Pedro was released by a through ball in the first half, Robles did well to not commit when his compatriot had a sight on goal, depriving Chelsea of a shot on goal. Then in the second half, Diego Costa was released in a similar manner and Robles did excellently to drive the forward wide enough, so that even when the shot came it was at an incredibly difficult angle. Small moments, but the game could have had a different outcome if Chelsea would have scored first.
Leighton Baines 6
After Everton’s recent defensive calamities, solid had to prioritized over spectacular and Baines delivered in that regard. Nullified the threat of Willian and Pedro while going toe to toe in an intense battle with Azpilicueta. Didn’t commit to as many forays forward as usual and delivered a few dangerous set pieces that tested the Chelsea defence.
Phil Jagielka 6
Solid and stable. Jagielka was rarely threatened and was calm and collected whenever called upon. 12 clearances with minimum fuss, Roberto Martinez will rely on Jagielka to lead by example at Wembley if Everton are to finally win their first silverware of the century.
Ramiro Funes Mori 7
The Argentinean was excellent. Chelsea’s forwards seem to have targeted Funes Mori over Jagielka, but the centre back won every battle against Costa, Willian and Pedro while winning all the aerial duels he was involved in. Frightened the Chelsea defence with some excellent runs in to the box on set pieces and probably should have opened the scoring with an excellent header.
Seamus Coleman 6
Like Baines, Coleman didn’t venture forward as is his wont. Seemed to be caught out by Kenedy’s pace and trickery in the first 15 minutes of the match before settling into a strong defensive display. Kept possession well in Chelsea’s half of the pitch and played some cute passes that released Aaron Lennon in space.
James McCarthy 7
Neat and tidy, composed in possession and took up excellent positions when Chelsea had the ball. With McCarthy in such form, Everton always look like a composed team. Easily outclassed Mikel and Matic.
Gareth Barry 4
While the midfield veteran was calm in possession and played some excellent passes, Barry committed silly fouls throughout. Should have received a yellow card long before his first one in the 84th minute and compounded his stupidity with an unnecessary foul on Fàbregas just minutes later. A deserved red card and on another day his daftness could have cost the Toffees dearly.
Tom Cleverley 6
Took the most advanced positions from midfield in the first half and had two half-chances courtesy of some smart late runs. Didn’t really do much in the second half, but Cleverley will always be a player with anonymous phases in a match.
Ross Barkley 7
Made some frustrating decisions in the final third for most of the match, but played a key role in Everton gaining a foothold in the second half. Intelligent running and passing in the second half consistently stretched Chelsea’s back four. Generously awarded an assist for the first goal, his pass for the second goal had the precise weight, rounding up an impressive performance.
Aaron Lennon 5
Infuriating. Lennon may have hit a patch of good form in the past month thanks to his scoring but the winger remains as frustrating with his decision making as at any point in his career. Found in some excellent positions out wide, Lennon never found his teammates thanks to some terrible crossing.
Romelu Lukaku 9
Lukaku finally got his first goal against Chelsea since being sold by them and what a goal it was. Combining pace, strength and finesse, the Belgian outwitted Chelsea’s defenders before calmly finishing. The goal will surely be replayed for years to come as a great FA Cup memory. Followed it up with an assured finish with his weaker right foot. A reminder then, that Lukaku is still only 22.
Thibaut Courtois 6
Couldn’t do much about either of Lukaku’s strikes. Didn’t actually face much other than the two goals and calmly collected some dangerous set pieces.
Started the game with some enterprising runs in attack and showcased some exciting moments of trickery. However, inexperience was exposed in the second half as Everton continuously attacked his flank. Was guilty of playing Lukaku onside for the decisive second goal.
Gary Cahill 7
One of his best displays this season. Imperious in the air and some excellent last-ditch tackles kept Everton from scoring earlier in the game. Outwitted by Lukaku for the opening goal, but not many centre backs would have been able to cope with that moment of skill. Will be expected to keep up the same standards to finish the season heading in to Euro 2016.
Branislav Ivanovic 5
A performance to remind every one of his early season foibles. The only difference was that this was in his preferred position of centre back. The Serb was beaten in the air early in the second half when the hosts had a string of corners and was outpaced by Lukaku and Barkley on different occasions during the game. Recent run of good form brought to a shuddering halt.
César Azpilicueta 6
Another tireless performance from one of Chelsea’s most consistent players this season. Did well defensively until Lukaku’s moment of magic. Offered himself as an attacking outlet whenever Chelsea had the ball, although his final delivery was not of the expected standard.
John Obi Mikel 6
Effective in possession and tried his best to help the defence by taking up deeper positions as the game wore on. Couldn’t prevent Everton overrunning the midfield but there was only so much he could do on his own. Which brings us to …
Nemanja Matic 4
Matic hasn’t been a regular recently and Guus Hiddink must be cursing himself for reinstating the Serb in the starting line-up. Last season’s midfield stalwart has had a startling decline this season, further compounded by an ineffective display at Goodison. Hardly got a tackle right, ceded possession and then ran out of gas in the second half. Will have a tough job convincing the new Chelsea manager to keep him in the squad.
Cesc Fàbregas 7
The only true creative presence on the pitch for the Blues. Fàbregas was head and shoulders above everyone else in Chelsea’s front six. His beautifully weighted through balls resulted in the two best chances for the visitors. Tried to keep the Blue’s play vertical but his colleagues were just not on the same wavelength.
An honest performance as has become the norm for the Brazilian. The stardust has receded a little in the past few weeks, but Willian gave his best, bringing out a good save from Robles after a dangerous free kick. Substituted when arguably should have stayed on in stead of …
Pedro Rodríguez 5
Another underwhelming performance from what was supposed to be a statement signing for Chelsea. Made a hash of a decent chance and was generally anonymous for the game. Can’t remember him beating either full back and shanked two horrible crosses when Chelsea were chasing the game.
Diego Costa 3
Probably the most overdue red card in English football history. While Costa was actually decent with the ball, he was his usual nasty self off it. Didn’t take long to get in the wars with Barry and was no surprise his sending off came after another altercation with the same adversary. Might suffer a big suspension if the FA reviews the video of him trying to bite Barry. A recent upturn in form will now be a mere footmark in an unsavoury season for the Spanish forward.
Game on, you’d have thought, yet there never seemed to be any tension brewing in the fixture. After the vibrancy of Leicester on Saturday came the grim realisation of a Chelsea vs Manchester United fixture. This used to be a glamour fixture.
My opinion is that amongst the big games in the Premier League, battles between these two have almost always been underwhelming. Even at the peak of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho’s teams, matches between Manchester United and Chelsea have left a lot to be desired for the neutral. The Champions League final, though tense, was hardly inspiring, while several title deciders between these two have been affairs of grit and physicality rather than finesse and creativity. The two exceptions to this were during André Villas-Boas’ ill-fated reign at Stamford Bridge.
This match was hardly any different from the usual drudgery served up in this rivalry. Each team had phases of ascendancy, but the only players who stood out were the two goalkeepers. This of course is not to suggest that there were a non-stop barrage of shots.
In fact, the only memory of this game is most likely going to be a sad one. Kurt Zouma’s howls of pain after an unfortunate landing were very hard to hear and the replays were sickening to see. At the time of writing, there is no official diagnosis, but it is more than likely that the young Frenchman’s season is over, and along with it a chance to appear at Euro 2016 on home soil. Heart breaking indeed.
Chelsea completed the double over Arsenal in the league with a 1-0 win at the Emirates. Here are a baker’s dozen of thoughts after the game.
- We have to start with that man Diego Costa. The Spaniard has taken a liking to playing the Gunners in a similar way to Didier Drogba. Its not just the goals, but the fact that he ruffles Arsenal psychologically as well. It was no surprise that the first key moment of the game came courtesy of Costa. Running on to a through ball from Willian, Costa raced past Arsenal’s back four before being brought down by Per Mertesacker. The fall may have been theatric and the decision slightly contentious, but Mark Clattenburg had little choice but to send off the German centre-back. Despite it being only the 18th minute, it was clear to many right then, that Arsenal were going to have a major struggle on their hands.
- While many Gunners fans are lamenting Per Mertesacker’s lack of pace in the sending-off, an honest post-mortem should reveal Mathieu Flamini’s culpability in the move. Ostensibly taking the place of Francis Coquelin in the side, Flamini has none of the positional understanding that his countryman brings to the role. Willian’s final pass was delivered from the centre circle, yet for some unknown reason Flamini was further up the field. Against most teams in the Premier League, Arsenal may not always pay the price, but against teams in the top half this has already cost the Gunners quite a lot. Flamini ran around like a headless chicken at Anfield and St. Mary’s and it is quite frustrating that Wenger has not given Calum Chambers more of an opportunity in this position. With the signing of Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal fans will be hoping to see lesser of Flamini in the starting eleven.
- Back to that man Diego Costa. Having played his part in the game’s turning point, Costa duly applied the decisive touch of the match. He found the perfect pocket of space in the box to head in Branislav Ivanovic’s excellent cross for the match-winning goal. At his best, Costa makes such finishes look very easy. Under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink, there are now clear signs that Chelsea’s forward is playing very close to his best level.
- Speaking of Ivanovic, the Serbian is another player whose confidence seems to have returned under Hiddink. For the first three months of the season, every critic and his mother advocated the dropping of the right-back. While the defensive uncertainty still exists, Ivanovic’s confidence has returned in the attacking third. There may be little left to salvage in the league, but Ivanovic has a knack for being decisive in attack in crucial moments. This trait may well come to the fore if Chelsea are to find success in the cups.
- With Arsenal down to ten men, chances were always going to be at a premium. Thus it must have been sheer agony for Gunners fans that when they did create an excellent chance on the stroke of half time, the man on the end of it was Flamini. In stead of heading in a beautifully floated ball, Flamini inexplicably tried a hybrid lob/volley which looped over the bar. If you are going to be positionally undisciplined, at least finish the easy chances in the box.
- After Mertesacker’s sending off many pundits claimed Arsene Wenger made an error in substituting Olivier Giroud. This writer’s opinion is that it was actually the right decision. Arsenal are not suited to lumping it in the box even with a full compliment of players, let alone with a man down. The idea of trying to get as much possession and release Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell with quick passes was correct in theory and with better execution, Arsenal could have created better chances to score.
- So how did Chelsea fare with the man advantage? Quite poor in actuality. In stead of ramming home the advantage, Chelsea’s midfield did little with the ball. There was no control exerted in the centre, they didn’t stretch Arsenal at any point and that they only had a marginal edge in possession was quite galling. Such has been the season that the Blues have suffered that three points are not to be scoffed at. However, even in this undefeated streak that Hiddink has orchestrated, there are still plenty of things that are not working on the pitch.
- Cesc Fabregas playing against Arsenal is now a part of the narrative surrounding this fixture. The Spaniard did make a few threatening runs in the first half, but in keeping with the nature of the game, he hardly elevated his game to heights above average. Against ten men, Fabregas would have been expected to run the game from midfield in a manner similar to how he used to at the Emirates. While he did have most possession of the ball with 102 touches, his passes neither created chances for Chelsea nor alleviated the pressure in defence.
- Kurt Zouma was excellent at the back for Chelsea. The 21-year old was resolute against the myriad of attacking threats that Arsenal possess. He intercepted some of Mesut Ozil’s dangerous passes, while none of Walcott, Campbell or Alexis Sanchez could get past him with the ball. He won every battle in the air, passed the ball better than the much-vaunted midfield and even saved an excellent tackle for the last minute of the match, depriving Nacho Monreal of a chance to cross in to the box. Of all the different centre backs that have been labelled as John Terry’s long-term successor, Zouma’s is the most viable claim.
- It was a sight for sore eyes at the Emirates. Alexis Sanchez warming up on the touchline. In an ideal situation Wenger would have loved to ease the Chilean supremo back in to action, but circumstances dictated otherwise. There were clear signs of rust, but a couple of mazy runs and jinking dribbles were on display. It is becoming clearer by the day this year’s league is not going to be decided by the big games. Arsenal’s best chance of success lies in their fantastic record against the lower half of the table. A fully fit and firing Sanchez will be key in maintaining that record.
- If there is any consolation for Arsenal it is that their full backs continue to be in excellent form. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal made the most interceptions with five and four respectively, while also tying for the most clearances. In a similar manner to Laurent Koscielny, one gets the sense that the two Spaniards are underrated for their defensive prowess by virtue of playing for Arsenal. That they are so solid defensively while still being so effective in attack is a testament to their versatility, skill and energy. It is hard for this writer to find a better pair of full backs in the league.
- Even in “this” season against “this” Chelsea, Arsene Wenger has suffered a double against the Blues. For all the talk of Arsenal banishing their big game blues in 2015, Chelsea remain a stumbling block. While being a man down in both games can be cited as a mitigating factor, the fact of the matter is that mental fragility and a lack of composure were quite evident on both occasions against their city rivals. The feeling remains that even in a campaign with so much promise, a mental switch-off is never far from the surface where Arsenal are concerned.
- Where do the teams go from here? Despite losing the chance to go back to the top of the table, all is not lost for the Gunners. How they respond will determine their fate in the title race. Arsenal face Leicester, Manchester United and Spurs in three of their next six games. Maximum points against Southampton, Bournemouth and Swansea in the other three games are a must. If that is achieved, even three points from the trio of difficult fixtures might suffice in this season of dropped points. For Chelsea, this season is now about small steps in the league and getting prepared for the Champions League tie against PSG. The French champions will have little to fear on the evidence of this display, but the vagaries of knockout competitions do not require a team to necessarily fire on all cylinders. The next three weeks are about fine-tuning for Hiddink. There are signs that the attack is clicking into gear. If midfield and defence can now establish the same wavelength, Chelsea have every chance of causing an upset and progressing to the quarterfinals.