Friday, March 1, 2024

FA Cup and Premier League: 11 things to look out for this weekend

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1) Kompany can cause shock on return

Who can forget Vincent Kompany stepping up to power in a 71st-minute winner v Leicester for what was his final Manchester City goal in a game Pep Guardiola’s side had to win to set up the chance to seal the title in their next and final match of 2018-19? They did, City subsequently became champions, and the captain, Kompany, had a dream end to a garlanded 11 years at the club. Now it could be reverse-fortunes time as the Belgian plots Burnley’s elimination of Guardiola’s team from the FA Cup. Can he do so? Why not: Kompany’s Clarets are the 13-point runaway leaders of the Championship and knockout football is all about romantic upsets. Jamie Jackson

2) A battle for history at Bramall Lane

It’s been eight years since a team from outside the Premier League made the semi-finals of the FA Cup (Reading, in 2015). That drought will end this Saturday as one of Sheffield United or Blackburn will progress to the last four. This is the most open and inclusive edition of the tournament for some time – half of the final eight teams play outside the top flight. Sheffield United were third-tier semi-finalists in 2014, and this is their third quarter-final in four seasons. Blackburn have a shoddy record at Bramall Lane, having lost there in all four of their previous visits – and Rovers’ last win here came courtesy of an Alan Shearer double in 1994. A win this weekend and a trip to Wembley would provide a shot in the arm for either team as they both push for promotion. Daniel Gallan

Sheffield United got Bramall Lane rocking as they eliminated Tottenham in the fifth round. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

3) Will Grimsby hook another big fish?

Only five other teams from the fourth tier or lower have come as far as Grimsby have in 151 years. And though this is a dramatic mismatch, with 78 clubs separating the two teams, the underdogs have a genuine chance of becoming the lowest-ranked team to reach the last four of the FA Cup. They’re the first team to in the competition’s history to eliminate five opponents from a higher division in a single season. Plymouth Argyle (5-1), Cambridge United (2-1), Burton (1-0), Luton (3-0 in a replay) were all beaten before Southampton were undone 2-1 on their own patch. The Brighton manager, Roberto De Zerbi, will no doubt want to avoid adding his club to the above list but, with the Seagulls flying in the league and chasing Europe, he might be tempted to rest some key players. Daniel Gallan

4) Absences test Ten Hag’s ambitions

Casemiro, who knows a bit about winning and winning managers, has confessed “surprise” at Erik ten Hag’s obsessive need to do so, this assessment from the Brazilian coming with a subtext of admiration. Fulham’s visit offers the next step in the Dutchman’s attempt to lead Manchester United to a second trophy of the season. Casemiro is suspended (the first of four games), so it should be Fred and one of Marcel Sabitzer and Scott McTominay in midfield, unless Ten Hag goes with a lone man there, as he did in Sunday’s goalless draw with Southampton in the league. Alejandro Garnacho, Christian Eriksen, Donny van de Beek are all also out for the foreseeable future, with Anthony Martial and Antony doubts after missing Thursday’s trip to Real Betis: further challenges for Ten Hag. JJ

Erik ten Hag in the dugout for Manchester United’s game at Real Betis
Erik ten Hag (second right) has selection dilemmas as his side prepare to host Fulham. Photograph: Nigel Keene/ProSports/Shutterstock

5) Local hero Johnson a big miss for Forest

Whether you sign three new players or however many Nottingham Forest have bought this season, somebody will always be nigh-on irreplaceable. Brennan Johnson is likely to miss Friday’s match with Newcastle due to a muscle injury, and that gives Steve Cooper – who has spent the season demonstrating a mastery of player-ego Jenga – a different kind of puzzle to solve. The closest thing he has to a replacement, Taiwo Awoniyi, is also injured. Johnson’s intrepid dynamism, confident finishing and almost telepathic relationship with Morgan Gibbs-White have been central to the success of Cooper’s counterattacking tactics. . The atmosphere will still be raucous at kick-off but with Johnson out, Forest will need to find a different way to sustain the mood. Rob Smyth

6) Ouattara’s oomph boosts Bournemouth

Want to make a footballer look good or bad? There’s a stat for that! In today’s dataverse, evidence can be found to fit any half-arsed observation. But some statistics will always jump out as being more meaningful than others. When Dango Ouattara created Philip Billing’s winner against Liverpool last weekend, various social-media accounts posted a list of the most assists by players aged 21 or under in Europe’s big five leagues this season. The most striking thing was not the number against Ouattara’s name, but the company he was keeping.

9 Bukayo Saka (Arsenal) 8 Jamal Musiala, Dango Ouattara

When Ouattara arrived in January, Bournemouth were on a run of six straight defeats. There are other reasons for their improvement, but he has given the team some much-needed oomph and optimism. His decision-making can be exasperating, as it is with 99% of 21-year-old wide players, and indeed 99 per cent of 21-year-olds. But Ouattara unsettles good defences and has enviable raw materials: skill, strength, charisma, fearlessness and spectacular pace. If he starts adding assists away from home, starting at Villa Park, Bournemouth’s survival hopes will look even better. Rob Smyth

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Dango Ouattara
Dango Ouattara has hit the ground running with Bournemouth. Photograph: Dave Shopland/Shutterstock

7) Foxes must focus at Brentford

Brendan Rodgers has set Leicester a target: finish top of the nine-team mini-league that currently makes up the tightest, least-predictable relegation battle in years. They have the personnel to do it but on current form ending up one place above the drop zone would feel like a relief. A calamitous run of four straight league defeats has undone much of the good work in beating Spurs and Aston Villa; the only mitigation for Rodgers might be that three of those reverses came against Manchester United, Arsenal and an improving Chelsea. Concentration has been an issue for the Foxes’ players, according to Rodgers, and they will need it against a Brentford side that will punish the slightest dozing-off. Brentford bounced back admirably from the termination of their unbeaten run by defeating Southampton and can still legitimately dream of Europe. Nick Ames

8) Shot-shy Saints have time to escape

Usually, by mid-March, at least one team has been cut adrift at the bottom of the Premier League. This year only five points separate the bottom eight teams, so every game has the potential to change a season. Southampton will start the weekend in 20th, yet could finish it as high as 15th. First, they need to score a goal. Southampton have played well at times under Rubén Sellés, collecting seven points in five games, but have only scored twice. There were times in Wednesday’s home defeat by Brentford that they looked like a team who had been told the game would go to the judges, rather than be decided by who scored the most goals. Southampton haven’t had a proper goalscorer since Danny Ings and their main weapon is James Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks. But with other parts of their game in decent order, Southampton know that a slight increase in efficiency could have a profound impact. Rob Smyth

James Ward-Prowse takes a free-kick
James Ward-Prowse’s free-kicks are still Southampton’s main attacking threat. Photograph: Sean Ryan/IPS/Shutterstock

9) An early six-pointer at Molineux

Down in 19th and a point from safety, even the most serene Leeds fan must be reaching for the panic button. But Javi Gracia will know that come the end of the weekend, his team could be as high as 14th if results go his way. Since taking over from Jesse Marsch the Spaniard has procured four points from three games – as many as his predecessor managed in 10. Perhaps this is a sign that things are improving, and a sharper looking Patrick Bamford is cause for optimism, but the same problems at the back cost them a win against Brighton and pointed to a deeper malaise within the squad. They’ll be without the injured Tyler Adams at Molineux– the midfielder leaves a big hole and Wolves will want to take advantage, though they’ve got problems of their own. They’re the joint-lowest scorers with just 20 goals and are stuck in a survival battle as a consequence. Daniel Gallan

10) Intrigue if not thrills at the Bridge

After three wins in a row – following three scoreless defeats in a row – it might just be that Chelsea, and Graham Potter, have turned the corner. Just as all three defeats featured a 4-2-3-1 formation, all three wins have come by way of a 3-4-3 setup that – for now at least – looks the best way of hiding the squad’s faults while highlighting its strengths. However, this will not be lost on Sean Dyche, whose side have also improved recently – their past seven games have yielded three wins and a draw – thanks in significant part to a blanketing five-man midfield that looks perfect for spoiling any plans Chelsea might have of participating in a game of football. Of course class may tell in the end, but for as long as the score remains goalless, Everton will be well in what promises to be the most compelling but least entertaining game of the weekend. Daniel Harris

11) Vieira needs a lift against old friends

Some of us are old enough to remember the night in October 2021 when Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace outplayed Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal for long spells at the Emirates and were unfortunate to draw. Some of us even recall lightly dangling the case for Vieira to be a more plausible Arsenal manager than Arteta. Fifteen months are a long time in football and on Sunday Vieira returns to north London fighting for his job, while Arteta deals with the loftier concerns of at least maintaining a five-point lead at the top. It is hard to pinpoint where things have gone wrong for Palace, who can still impress on their day but have won none of their last 12 and will be scrapping for their lives unless things change almost immediately. Time is running out for Vieira and he needs the sight of Arsenal, where he is so deeply loved, to rekindle some of the magic that earned such lavish praise last season. NA

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