Ah, the first week of January. Stacks of emails, Christmas bills, new rotas, resolutions, gym memberships, and of course, the dreaded ‘dry month’ Challenges.
However, fear not, I promise you that there is something good about this month; The third round of the FA Cup. Yes, one of the oldest competitions in the history of football has already been going since the summer – this is the third round but there have been several sets of games beforehand – although many associates the magic of the cup with this coming weekend.
In the last 22 years, only Wigan and Portsmouth are the only two teams from outside what we would call the ‘Big Six’ – that being the Manchester pairing, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – and this despite a decreasing amount of interest in the earlier rounds from top managers along with the increasing amount of focus on either the Top 4 or going deep into the Champions League.
It is the latter that is likely to be a major factor this season. The Premier League has no less than five clubs (thanks to an obscure cup rule) with all of them sure to demand attention. Then add to this the fact that three of the top six are in the semi-finals of the League Cup, which means two of them are of course playing each other; The semi-finals are next week. There is one side clear in the Premier League, but apart from that there are eight points separating five teams going for the three Champions League places (after City win)
The title is won for Manchester City, who haven’t put a foot wrong through the campaign so far and have tremendous reserves of depth – as one would expect – given their talent here. A 15 point gap is barely believable at this stage of the season and all thingss equal there isn’t a team in England to match them, but the FA Cup has to be bottom of their list of priorities so far.
Firstly, for all that they’ve taken the league apart – that isn’t even their main aim this season – it is the Champions League, which will demand full attention from the moment the competition restarts in February.
Now they have shown proper attention to the League Cup this season, at least on paper. against Wolves at home in the League Cup they started with Bravo, Danilo, Mangala, Adarabioyo, Zinchenko, Bernardo, Toure, Sterling, Gündoğan, Agüero and Jesus; However that went to penalties where Wolves had been the better side over 120 minutes and Bravo had to pull them out of trouble twice.
More pressingly, they are also in the semi-finals of the League Cup – with their first leg against Bristol City coming on Tuesday, just two days after their 3pm kickoff against Burnley on Saturday. City’s knocking out of United will have sharpened the minds of the Blues and an immediate trophy success would do a great deal of short term good.
In any case, should they make it through to the latter stages then the quarter and semi-finals are in close proximity to the Champions League knockout stages and they will be second best. They’re too short for us considering all those factors.
Neighbours United have not had the Merriest of Christmases or the Happiest of New Year’s, especially as they were knocked out of the League Cup thanks to a late winner at Bristol City. However, Jose Mourinho does have a decent amount of depth to hand and it’s worth remembering that despite a lacklustre Christmas, his side are still second – and have been for a large part of the season.
Romero, Lindelof, Rojo, Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Martial, Blind, Rashford, Shaw, and Darmian started their quarter-final against Bristol and in a 2-0 win at Swansea in the League Cup earlier on in the season Darmian, Blind, Smalling, Lingard, Herrerra, Rashford and Martial all started.
United will obviously invest in the Champions League but they judged the EFL Cup and group stages just fine and they should feel confident of being able to field a side that would go off favourite to win most matches regardless of what commitments they have. They have home advantage for their tie against Derby and can go from there; Mourinho’s record in Cup competitions is normally exemplary – he won two last season – and United could be likely to have this as one of their two main aims with the league gone.
There appears to be an awful lot of discontent at Chelsea – well there is – but given the circumstances of the season, Antonio Conte’s side have actually made decent progress through the first half of the season and probably played a little better than their current third place finish in the table, just behind Manchester United.
They are now in the League Cup semi-finals, which of course is going to be the immediate short-term priority, but they look better placed to cope with such a workload than others. Alvaro Morata struck late to give them victory against Bournemouth in the League Cup, starting Rudiger, Cahill Zappacosta, Drinkwater, Fabregas, Willian and Pedro before a trip to Everton which they should have won (came on the Saturday).
They will feel aggrieved not to have beaten Arsenal at the Emirates on Tuesday and whilst their meeting with Norwich is sandwiched between a rematch, they could have had far worse draws with Championship sides alone (let alone Premier League sides) and if they win that then they will know already if they’ve made the League Cup final ahead of the fourth-round tie. There is a worry about overreliance on Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas for creativity, but they look the best balanced of the Big Six bar Manchester City to go far despite having Barcelona in the Champions League.
Liverpool’s Merseyside Derby with Everton is going to be difficult – Sam Allardyce’s men rode their luck to take a very creditable draw a few weeks ago. Klopp has named a strong side for the Merseyside Derby tonight, but the Champions League will surely be number one and the weakened team that Jurgen Klopp played which went down to a 2—0 defeat at Leicester sets alarm bells ringing. For all their wonderful attacking talent – it remains to be seen if Virgil Van Dijk will be used then in this competition, never mind seal the defence.
Tottenham have not been mentioned so far which is a mistake, and it was only Chelsea who got the better of them last year; There appears to be a drop off from their first Xi to their backup XI, which will make Fifth round and Quarter Final that come close to their Champions League clash with Juventus rather treacherous if the draw goes against them.
This leaves Arsenal last of the Big Six teams. That will; surprise many – they have won three of the last four FA Cups – and the competition has ended up saving their season. However, the Europa League offers a way back into the Champions League for the Gunners as well this season which throws the plans for the fifth round and quarter-finals in the air.
They also have the small matter of their League Cup semi-final with Chelsea beforehand and whilst Nottingham Forest isn’t the worst tie for their third-round clash, they will need the draw to be as kind as it was last year through the latter stages and it remains to be seen how they balance the Europa League and FA Cup with the potential race for fourth which went to the wire last year.
With two from the Big Six, some will find it obscene to go for a third choice but it’s well worth having plenty onside here and Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Hull, Stoke and Cardiff have made it to the final in losing causes so there’s plenty of reason to think outside the box.
A couple of Championship sides – Wolves, Cardiff, Ipswich and Sheffield United – made appeal but the results of the last few seasons tell us that the Premier League is best and there are a couple of teams who makes appeal.
Many sides can get drawn into a relegation battle but Leicester do not look like they will be one of them and this is mostly the same side that won the Premier League two seasons ago and then went to the Champions League Quarter Finals last season. They have had a tough run of fixtures through the first half of the season but made Manchester City [pull out all the stops in the League Cup after knocking out Liverpool earlier, this despite making seven changes from their league lineup. Claue Puel threw on Vardy and Mahrez late into the game, suggesting he is willing to chase the game if up for grabs, and there’s no real danger of relegation save an injury crisis of January exodus.
A trip to Fleetwood Town is the perfect start with a hero’s welcome for Jamie Vardy and there’s no other commitments, so they made by far the most appeal of the non Big Six.
1 pt each/way Manchester United (13/2 Bwin 6/1 general)
1 pt each/way Chelsea (13/2 Betway, 6/1 general)
1 pt each/way Leicester (25/1 general)