UnVARgettable Weekend in the FA Cup

Another exciting weekend of FA Cup football is behind us and we can safely say that the decision to only have VAR available at the Premier League grounds was somewhat questionable.

At the Millwall v Everton match they had their own unofficial version of VAR, it’s a pity that the referee team didn’t make better use of it though. Apparently you can’t overturn a decision based on a giant replay of the incident seen by thousands inside the stadium, but it is OK to overturn the decision if it’s an official VAR system.

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Is there no common sense in football these days? Surely if a member of the referee team sees something that leads to a wrong decision he should alert the referee. How can he go on knowing a wrong decision was taken regardless of the manner in which he received that information. In this instance it was a massive game changing incident allowing Millwall to draw level late in the game with a clearly illegitimate goal. Instead the 4th official just signaled vigorously for someone to turn the replay off.

Another Premier League team to crash out of the Cup was Spurs, their 2nd cup exit in a week after their defeat by Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final. Despite the different circumstances from the Everton game both Premier League teams deserved to leave the competition based on their performances alone.

Spurs obviously have problems with squad depth with Kane and Ali injured and Son on international duty. If they had played if they were available is another question. For the spurs players and fans I imagine this Cup exit will be less painful than the League Cup exit. Especially after being 1-0 up against Chelsea from the first leg. Having one foot in the final and then having it taken away again could have played a part in their poor FA Cup exit also.

One team prancing their way to the 5th round is Man Utd after their 8th straight win since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took after a month ago. In his first few games Man Utd may not have dispatched all the teams with ease but they’ve kept winning and that will breed confidence throughout the squad. With away wins at Spurs and Arsenal, they have their tails up. They are playing with a much better flow than a few months ago and seem a more unpredictable outfit, with all the forward players contributing. I can see them going on to win the FA Cup now, with Man City being the only team that could stop them.

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Man Utd must go to Chelsea in the next round but should still play with the same nothing to loose attitude as slight underdogs. Chelsea on the other hand may feel under pressure and have some problems scoring goals at the moment. Higuain is considered to be the solution to their problem. Personally I’m always skeptical about big name strikers coming to the Premier league so late in their carriers. Shevchenko, Falcao and Morientes to name but a few who have arrived late and flopped. Sari has worked with Higuain before so maybe that familiar face will be the difference between Higuain and those aforementioned strikers.

This years FA Cup has been something special so far with the lower league teams providing a lot of value with several cupsets. There are only 7 Premier League teams left and many of them playing away to lower league opposition in the next round. There could be a few more cupsets to come.

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Liverpool’s ghost of Christmas past

It has been well documented over the past few weeks that on 8 of the past 10 seasons, the team at the top of the table at Christmas have went on to win the league. The 2 exceptions are Liverpool of course. In the 08/09 under Rafa Benitez and then again 13/14 under Brendan Rodgers.

In the 08/09 season Liverpool faded somewhat in the second half after Benitez’s infamous ‘Facts’ rant. In the 13/14 season Liverpool were still top with 3 games to go, only to choke and hand the league to Man City. The devastating loss to Chelsea along with that monumental collapse 3-0 up at Crystal Palace ended Liverpool’s chances that year.

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Liverpool could look back on both those occasions and learn something. Quite simply they need to keep calm on and off the pitch. In 08/09 Benitez clearly lost his cool trying to play mind games with Ferguson and as a result the whole team suffered. In 13/14 the players lost their cool on the pitch during that 3rd last game against Mourinho’s bus-parking, slow-moving Chelsea. Liverpool were trying a little too hard to win that game when a draw along with 2 wins from the last 2 games would have secured the league.

Despite their defeat to Man City last night Liverpool have no need to panic and with Jurgen Klopp at the helm and this group of players they are much better equipped to deal with the pressure. In both 08/09 and 13/14 Liverpool had an excellent first 11 but beyond that it was very limited. It was almost inevitable that those players would not be able to keep up that level of performance the whole season with no backup. Liverpool have a huge squad this time. They have players who can make a big impact from the bench, and with several players still to come back from injury they are in much better shape than those previously failed attempts to win the league.

The problem for Liverpool this year is they are not up against just one great manager and squad but two. Tottenham are just 6 points behind Liverpool and must also be considered contenders for the league. They have won the same amount of matches in the league as Man City which is quite impressive. Their only negative point is they’ve lost the other 5 matches failing to rescue a draw yet. Grinding out a few wins or draws from difficult situations is something Liverpool and City have both managed this season and it is also seen as a sign that a team has got that extra grit and determination needed to become champions of England. If Spurs can correct that in the 2nd half of the season they will play a very important part in the title race.

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With many non Liverpool fans hoping this is the start of a blip in form, and Man City’s big players coming back from injury, and Spurs form improving, the 2nd half of the season is shaping up to be a cracker with a few more twists and turns to come. Can Liverpool finally rid themselves of that ghost of Christmas past? We will find out in May.

Man Utd falling into the footballing abyss

The rate at which Man Utd appear to be falling into the footballing abyss is quite alarming. It just goes to show how quickly things can change in football.

Man Utd finished last season relatively unchallenged in 2nd place. Although the standard of football was already not of the most desirable variety, Mourinho was still getting the results. This year however things are not going the same way. Bad performances and bad results are making for a very unhappy camp.

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It’s difficult to see Mourinho keeping his job much longer but Man Utd are not really the panic sacking sort of club. In the post Ferguson era they have usually given their managers almost full seasons before getting rid of them. The other problem they have is who is even available right now that could come in and straighten the team out. So the question is do they continue with Mourinho till the end of the season with morale seemingly at an all time low, or do they get rid now and bring in a temporary manager or promote someone from within.

In contrast to Man Utd, Arsenal seem to be on the up despite their loss to Southampton at the weekend. Their first loss in 22 games, since they started the season with 2 defeats. Last season they found themselves in a similar situation to Man Utd’s this season. With bad performances and results, they took the plunge and finally got rid of Wenger. However when you look at their match day squad, there are not that many changes to the squads of Wenger. A perfect example of how a fresh set of eyes (Unai Emery) can lift a talented set of players and give them a new direction and purpose.

A fresh set of eyes is surely something Man Utd could do with right now. When you look at their squad, it’s unbelievable to think that with the talent on offer, they find themselves in this situation. Mourinho’s 3rd season syndrome seems to be striking again and if someone doesn’t address the situation soon, the rot that is setting in, could be widespread by the end of the season.

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Liverpool on the other hand are like an unstoppable train recently. Qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League and top of the Premier League. Every player seems to be buzzing right now and very eager to make an empression, whether it’s from the bench or the starting line up. The same cannot be said for Man Utd. Klopp trusts his players and clearly let’s them know. Take Nathaniel Clyne for example. It was his first start of the season and he had a very solid game. If you have the backing of your manager, that can give your confidence a great boost. Clyne didn’t seem fazed despite the big occasion or the lack of recent playing time. Mourinho could certainly take a leaf out of Klopp’s book on this topic.

Liverpool… Top?

If you had have told me when Liverpool were 1-0 down to Burnley on Wednesday night, that they would be top come Saturday evening, I can’t say I would have believed you.

Somehow they’ve managed to find themselves at the summit of the Premier League despite the relentless pace of Man City. On the inside I’m dancing but my head is telling me, haven’t we been here before?

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They’ve kept up with Man City with several grinded results so far and avoiding defeat against the 3 next best teams in the league. Their brand of football this season has not always been befitting of a league winning team but their defence certainly has. The addition of Alisson has been a huge success already. He has come up with some vital saves at crucial times in matches and his distribution has been excellent, leading to several breakaway goals for Liverpool this season. The central defensive partnership of van Dijk and Gomez has been an absolute rock at the back. Something Liverpool have been missing for quite some time.

The midfield however is not as strong as it has been in recent years. Ironically I think that the amount of options they have in midfield has weaked it slightly. With Henderson as captain Klopp probably feels obliged to play him when injury free despite his lack of form so far this season. With Milner’s age Klopp possibly feels he needs rested more than others, but not something I would agree with due to his great form when he plays. Keita and Lallana have been somewhat injured and unable to get a consistent run in the team. Fabinho and Shaqiri have recently been given their chance and have given Klopp a headache with some good performances. The one almost ever-present and consistently well performing player is Wijnaldum. Due to his role, which mainly involves adapting to whichever 2 players he lines up along side, he has flown under the radar but has this season become an absolutely vital part of Liverpool’s midfield 3.

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Of course I’m playing Liverpool’s chances of winning the league down. It is afterall only December and there’s a lot of football to go but it’s certainly exciting times for Liverpool fans. The next month however will severely test Liverpool’s resolve in both the Champions League and Premier League. With vital home games to Napoli, Man Utd and Arsenal coming up in December and starting the new year with an away trip to Man City we will know more about Liverpool’s title and Champions League credentials. Let’s hope for the sake of the Premier League, they can keep up the pace.

For Klopp Sake

As a Liverpool fan it’s difficult to criticise Klopp, but let’s be honest if Mourinho had have run on to the pitch in the way Klopp did during the Everton match, he would be getting butchered by the fans and press right now. It seems Klopp can just do no wrong.

I cannot defend Klopp’s actions but I can offer some opinions as to why he gets away with this sort of thing when Mourinho wouldn’t. Personality and respect. These 2 traits come across very differently in the 2 managers. Klopp always appears very personable and open in his press conferences which makes him very likeable. Mourinho on the other hand seems more closed off and distant.

Any form of criticism Mourinho receives, he takes it very personally and sees it as disrespectful. With all his achievements in the game, he feels he should be immune from criticism but football is a fickle sport and people have short memories. Klopp can handle the criticism a little better usually giving more insight into the situation or trying to turn the criticism into a positive. Klopp never gets frustrated during interviews even if he receives some stupid questions unlike Mourinho.

All of these factors combined make Klopp a very likeable character in the world of football and therefore somewhat immune to criticism. He is also more likely to get away with some controversial acts such as running onto the pitch during a match. Something Mourinho would get lambasted for. In this particular incident Klopp is lucky the opposition manager Marco Silva and his players didn’t view the incident as disrespectful or react angrily which may help Klopp’s case if the FA come calling.

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Let’s not let this incident take away from what was another great weekend in the Premier League. 3 big derbys today and 3 big wins. Spurs continue to blow hot and cold on the big matches this season. They’ve had 2 big wins against Man Utd and Chelsea but also convincing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal now. After the first 2 matches of the season ended in defeat for Arsenal, they’ve been on an uphill roller-coaster ever since, quietly creeping back up the table and now look very capable of finishing in the top 4 or better.

After Jordan Pickford’s horrendous error gifted Liverpool a somewhat undeserved 96th minute victory in the Merseyside derby, Liverpool stay in touching distance behind Man City with just a 2 point difference. Despite the small gap at the top of the table Man City still appear to be on a different footballing planet to the rest of the Premier League. They managed to cruise to a relatively comfortable 3-1 win against a determined Bournemouth without their 3 most influential players, Aguero, de Bruyne and Silva although the latter did appear as a substitute.

Man Utd also stumbled to another draw against a very poor Southampton side, or is it the other way around.

A touchdown for Mourinho

José Mourinho is an absolute master in the art of distraction and provides us football fans with an endless means of commentary.

Was anybody really supprised when he scored a touchdown last night with that crate of water bottles? His team had just been saved by a classic Fellaini goal in Fergie time but Mourinho still managed to steal the show. What people are mostly talking about now is that crate throwing incident. Realistically this is just papering over the cracks though as this was Man Utd’s first home goal in the Champions League this season in 3 matches.

Fan frustration is starting to show at Old Trafford with a few empty seats when the match started and many empty by the time the 90th minute began. A sign of the times that the fans are getting fed up with the lack of exciting football being played at the ‘Theatre of dreams’. The trouble for the fans that want rid of Mourinho is how can you fire a manager who wins one week and draws the next with a few sporadic defeats. That inconsistency is probably what is keeping Mourinho in the job oddly enough.

The other major point in the match last night was that David de Gea save to keep the score at 0-0. That guy continues to bail out his team time and time again giving them that opportunity to draw or even win these matches. One can only wonder what shape Man Utd would be in without him. He really is a world class keeper and Man Utd are lucky that he’s sticking around dispite the downturn in fortunes.

Dispite the lack of goals in the Champions League this year Man Utd have still managed to qualify for the last 16 with a match to spare. Something Mourinho has never failed to do in 14 seasons in the Champions League. Something he pointed out after last nights match. He is of course a 2 times winner of the competition and a further 6 times semi-finalist. The historical stats look great for Mourinho but currently reality doesn’t and time will tell if constant masking of the problems will keep Mourinho in this job beyond this season.

Diving for Gold

During the Premier League match last Saturday between Brighton and Leicester there were 2 cases of diving, one was punished and the other was rewarded. If there’s anything in football I cannot have, it is diving. It is a scourge of the modern game.

The first case of diving was when James Maddison, already on a yellow card, tried to to skip through some players in the box hung out a leg and fell to the ground. It was a clear and deliberate dive and thankfully the referee had the strength and conviction to show him a 2nd yellow and send him off. He later apologised on Twitter claiming he was waiting on contact which never came but that’s not good enough. How can you honestly play football when your mind is somewhere else waiting on some contact so you can throw yourself to the floor. How can this be in the forefront of your thought’s? What ever happened to being brave, playing on and just taking the hits if and when they come.

The reaction from his own team mates is also concerning, most of them opting for the ‘unlucky you got caught’ pat on the back. His team mates should be livid with him and give him a good clap round the ear. He left them for the remaining 62 minutes of the match to play with 10 men.

The other case of diving was when Leicester won a penalty. At first I also thought it was a foul but on further inspection having seen the incident from a side on angle it’s more of a dive than a foul. It’s less clear cut than the Maddison incident but you can see that Kelechi Iheanacho is already falling long before the contact arrives. In this case there is some contact and a slightly wild tackle in the box but the dive came before the contact so in my opinion this is not a penalty.

The punishment for diving is also far to lenient. How can a yellow card for cheating be sufficient. There’s no deterrent whatsoever for diving and unless the authorities grow a set and get tough on diving it will never go away and probably only get worse. All these so called experts on TV are barely raising an eyebrow at the alarming frequency with which we see new cases of diving. It’s so common now that some are seeing it as part of the game but I’m sorry I cannot and will not accept that. Diving is cheating and should be outlawed from the game with harsher punishments. Diving should be a straight red card with a heafty fine and ban included. Only then might we see some changing attitudes towards diving from the players.