FA Cup talking points: 10 things to look out for this weekend

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Swansea trying to find an on-field distraction, a striker searching for goals and a potential shock at Newport

Sachin Nakrani, Barry Glendenning and Simon Burnton  –  The Guardian

1) Fixtures and injuries leave Solskjær pensive before Chelsea trip

Manchester United have lost five times to Chelsea in the FA Cup and the last of United’s eight Cup victories over the Blues came almost exactly two decades ago, in the 1999 quarter-finals, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in the team. Within the next month Solskjær’s side will play key games against Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal away from home and against Liverpool at Old Trafford, with the period ending with either a home match with Manchester City in the league, an FA Cup quarter-final or a few days off, depending on results here and at Newport County this weekend. By its end we will know if the Solskjaer Bounce was just a temporary elevation or whether the genial Norwegian has successfully coaxed this previously pedestrian team into taking flight. The first match of the run, against PSG on Tuesday, brought something of a reality check and also a couple of unwelcome injuries, with Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial both limping off, which may force Solskjaer into some fixture prioritisation. It will be interesting to see where this one ranks, given that United’s chances of silverware this season almost certainly hinge on it. SB

 

2) Newport can still make the most of home comforts

Quite what Manchester City’s match-day squad will make of Rodney Parade when they step off their coach and make the long walk towards the away dressing-room before their match against Newport County is anyone’s guess, but we can only hope their reaction is captured on camera. Despite their lowly League Two status, Newport caused Tottenham all sorts of problems last season and have already beaten Leicester and Middlesbrough in Wales this time around. Indeed, their replay win over the team from Teesside could scarcely have been more comfortable and was far more emphatic than the 2-0 scoreline suggests. Tony Pulis’s side looked beaten men before kick-off, clearly nonplussed by both the atrocious weather conditions and the notion of having to muddy their spats in the quagmire of a provincial rugby stadium that holds less than 10,000 people. Clearly considering the contest beneath them, they came a cropper and the superstars of Manchester City will need to be vigilant in the face of potential humiliation. Should the unthinkable happen, the laughter from Rodney Parade, Pillgwenlly and Lliswerry would echo around the world. BG

 

 

3) Lampard will not view the FA Cup as an unwelcome distraction

So Frank Lampard, do you stick or twist? With Derby continuing to push hard for promotion from the Championship, their manager could be forgiven for looking upon an FA Cup tie away to Premier League opponents as an unwanted distraction that his team are unlikely to win anyway. So make a load of changes and take the hit. That, however, would go against Lampard’s approach to facing top-flight sides in cup competitions this season – strong sides were sent out against Manchester United and Chelsea in the Carabao Cup as well as against Southampton (twice) in the FA Cup. So expect more of the same from the visitors to the Amex Stadium, and given Brighton’s form – four defeats and three draws from their last seven matches – a strong start could end with Derby on the right side of a shock. SN

 

4) Watford should forget the fringe benefits and focus on silverware

Javi Gracia’s assessment of QPR as a team in good form seems generous, but under the Loftus Road lights on Friday night this may well be, as the Spaniard predicts, “a very demanding game”. In their two FA Cup games this season not one Watford player has kept his place from the preceding league fixture. Given the settled nature of their league side – only 16 players have made more than five league starts this season – the possibility of cup appearances has been the only way the Spaniard has been able to incentivise fringe players. For a club that has reached a major final only once, and never won any competition more prestigious than the third tier, is it now time for the Hornets to change tack? Should they claim a place in the quarter-finals Watford will be, at worst, the fourth highest-ranked side still in the competition; they would probably expect even their second string to beat a woefully out-of-form QPR, but any misjudgement will cause significant regret. SB

5) AFC Wimbledon have 560,000 reasons to beat Millwall

Rock bottom of League One but not so adrift that all hope of staying up has gone, Wimbledon entertain Millwall from the division above at the 4,850-capacity Kingsmeadow, where visiting fans will have an allocation of 750 tickets. Along with the tie between Swansea and Brentford, this is one of only two FA Cup matches out of eight not being televised this season, which means both clubs will miss out on the always welcome windfall they earn for welcoming the TV cameras into their grounds. But with £360,000 in prize-money going to the winners of this match, this is not a game either cash-strapped club can take lightly. With £250,000 also going to the Football League team from each division that goes the furthest, Wimbledon would earn that bonus if they win and Doncaster go out to Crystal Palace. This may not be the glamour tie either struggling side hoped for, but it is one that each one will be very eager to win. BG

6) Sarri cannot hold back Hudson-Odoi without reason

Since ending a transfer window in which Callum Hudson-Odoi’s pursuit by Bayern Munich was one of the longest-running and most intriguing stories by insisting the player is “the future of our club … the future of English football” and “one of the best 18-year-old players in Europe”, Maurizio Sarri has been almost comically reluctant to let him actually play football. He was not in the squad to face Bournemouth because “one winger had to be in the stands”, played 13 minutes against Huddersfield and was back out of the squad for the visit to Manchester City, before getting another six minutes of action at Malmö on Thursday. But he has played every minute of Chelsea’s FA Cup run so far, claiming two assists against Nottingham Forest and a goal against Sheffield Wednesday. The last thing Sarri needs, having guided his team to an aggregate scoreline of 0-13 in their last four domestic away games, is to invite further criticism by wilfully and unnecessarily ignoring a popular youth-team product. But Manchester United are a very different prospect to Chelsea’s last two Cup opponents, so it will be interesting to see whether Hudson-Odoi starts once again and if not, how Sarri explains it. Whatever is preventing the Italian from fielding his young forward, it certainly isn’t exhaustion. SB

 

 

7) Doncaster could be the perfect fodder for Benteke

Whisper it quietly but Christian Benteke might be ready to be good at football again. Nobody should be getting carried away given this is a striker who has not scored since Crystal Palace’s 5-0 victory over Leicester in late April, but the Belgian is back for Roy Hodgson’s side after recovering from a knee injury and, having started their last two games, shown glimpses of the talent that persuaded Liverpool to once spend £32.5m on him. A trip to Doncaster represents a chance for Benteke to further his return to form and score that long-awaited goal. It will not be easy against in-form opponents but Doncaster have the worst defence in League One’s top six – 39 goals conceded in 31 games – and that should also fuel Benteke with confidence ahead of this fixture. SN

8) Wolves must learn their lesson and play their best XI

It is fair to say Wolves have got to the fifth-round the hard way. First, Liverpool were despatched at Molineux, before two fourth-round games against Shrewsbury in which Nuno Espírito Santo’s men twice had to battle back against resilient opponents. Now comes another test – Bristol City, who sit fifth in the Championship and have won each of their last nine games in all competitions, including a third-round victory over Huddersfield. Lee Johnson’s men with hope they can take another Premier League scalp at Ashton Gate on Sunday but Wolves are formidable opponents when they are at full-strength – which was not the case in either game against Shrewsbury – so should the likes of Rúben Neves, João Moutinho and Raúl Jiménez start at the weekend then they should prevail. In this most open of competitions who knows how far Wolves could go. SN

 

 

 

9) Swansea hoping for a positive as off-field issues swirl

Swansea City won by the odd goal of five when they travelled to Brentford in December and will enjoy home advantage when the two Championship sides meet again on Saturday. Currently seven points off the play-offs, Swansea are performing commendably considering their manager, Graham Potter, has been forced to work with one arm tied behind his back during this, his maiden season in England. The 43-year-old, who joined from Östersund, has been undermined by his employers in two consecutive transfer windows and is currently dealing with the aftermath of the resignation of Huw Jenkins as the club’s chairman. With the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust currently embroiled in a dispute with the club’s American owners, Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, the Welsh club’s players will struggle to match all that off-field drama when their threadbare, academy-reliant team lines up against Brentford. While making the last eight and potentially going further should not be beyond them, it would mark a fine achievement in a season of extreme turbulence. BG

10) History and current form count against QPR

The FA Cup has provided QPR with their only wins of 2019, the club sitting bottom of the Championship form table after a winless run that dates back to Boxing Day. As the new year dawned they were eighth in the table and cautiously eyeing the play-offs; now they are 16th, only a point better off and grateful that the bottom three are sufficiently hopeless that the Hoops are only three points closer to the trapdoor than they were in December. Still, they are in the FA Cup in mid-February, which is a novel sensation. QPR’s Cup record is abysmal; they have already won as many FA Cup ties this season as they managed in the last 17 put together. The last time they went past the fifth round it was 1995, they were on their way to an eighth-place finish in the top flight, Les Ferdinand was their star striker, Ian Holloway was in midfield and even then they needed a stoppage-time Clive Wilson penalty to get past Millwall. Watford are likely to field a much-changed line-up once again, but even so there seems little cause, either from current form or long-term history, for genuine optimism. SB

 

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