FA Cup hits and misses: Manchester City show ruthless streak while Liverpool face fixture pile-up

City slickers show ruthless streak

In a week when doubts were starting to creep in about Manchester City’s title credentials, it would have been easy for the champions to buckle under the pressure they endured at St Mary’s.

Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez celebrates scoring their fourth goal against Southampton

Southampton threw the kitchen sink at City in what was a ferocious performance from the hosts. Even after Kevin De Bruyne’s penalty made it 2-1, it felt like there was still hope for the Saints.

The sight of Che Adams and Armando Broja coming off the bench only added to the belief that there was a way back into the game for Southampton, although that feeling waned slightly when it became clear that Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez were also being brought on. It was the two City substitutes who proved to be the difference.

Foden’s emphatic left-footed strike, almost out of nothing from the edge of the area, effectively killed the game after 75 minutes. Three minutes later, and Mahrez was expertly finishing off a slick City move at Fraser Forster’s near post after a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot delivery from Joao Cancelo in the build-up.

In the blink of an eye, City were out of sight and three goals to the good before Southampton knew what had hit them in what proved to be a cruel demise for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side after an admirable cup run.

It was a timely show of ruthlessness from the champions after dropping points at Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football. City now march on to a fourth consecutive FA Cup semi-final and keep their treble hopes alive.

When things get hot, City stay cool – and you can expect them to do just that at the business end of the season.
Zinny Boswell

Saints on the right track

Ralph Hasenhuttle during Southampton's FA Cup defeat to Manchester City
Ralph Hasenhuttl during Southampton’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester City

For 75 minutes Southampton went toe-to-toe with Manchester City until their quality told.

Foden struck a sweet third before Mahrez added another a few minutes later to put the tie to bed. Pep Guardiola had the luxury of bringing both players off the bench to make the telling impact.

And just a minute before Foden found the corner with a perfect strike, Southampton substitute Adams had a big chance to equalise but was denied by Zack Steffen. His effort was straight at the City goalkeeper and it proved to be a crucial moment in the hosts’ defeat.

Southampton have shown signs of being able to compete with the top teams this season, but have equally slipped up against clubs in the bottom half.

Their season is now effectively over with relegation not a concern and the European places too distant, although it is important they finish the season strongly to carry momentum into the next one. Hasenhuttl will not let his players take it easy for the remainder of the campaign.
David Richardson

Liverpool’s contined success comes at a fixture pile-up cost

Diogo Jota scored his second FA Cup goal of the season as Liverpool progressed to the semi-finals
Diogo Jota scored his second FA Cup goal of the season as Liverpool progressed to the semi-finals

No one will be happier than Jurgen Klopp that Liverpool are into the FA Cup semi-finals – surprisingly, for the first time under his tenure.

But all things come at a cost. One of the reasons always given for the difficulty in achieving something like Manchester United managed in 1999, lifting the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup trophies in the same season is the physical toll it takes on squads.

United played 63 games that season, making their triumph, especially before wholesale rotation became commonplace, all the more impressive.

Liverpool will have to play that exact figure should they reach the final of the FA Cup and the Champions League, let alone win them.

That includes seven games in 22 days from when they return to action after the international break on April 2, a run which includes derbies with Everton and Man Utd, both legs of their Champions League quarter-final with Benfica – and now two games with Manchester City in the space of a week.

The Reds’ momentum towards an unthinkable quadruple, a feat never achieved before, has been gathering steam with 15 wins from 16 games in all competitions and some agreeable draws in the cups.

But that could all come crashing down in the space of several days. Liverpool’s squad will be stretched to its limits over the next 35 days, and it will be as much a case of stamina, bloody-mindedness and a fair amount of luck as it will quality whether they can keep fighting on all fronts.

Should that be possible, they will be on for one of the greatest achievements in English domestic history. Two games from the FA Cup final, four from the Champions League final, it is certainly a possibility.
Ron Walker

Chelsea maintain head of steam amid ownership saga

Chelsea's Mason Mount (left) and manager Thomas Tuchel after the Emirates FA Cup quarter final match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough. Picture date: Saturday March 19, 2022.
Chelsea’s Mason Mount and manager Thomas Tuchel

The narrative surrounding Chelsea in recent weeks has understandably focused on the club’s future, with Roman Abramovich looking to sell the club after being hit with sanctions and a number of interested parties keen to take the club off the Russian billionaire’s hands.

But that has meant that events on the field have flown under the radar, and therefore it is perhaps surprising to note that Chelsea have now won 11 of their last 12 matches, with the sole defeat coming on penalties to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final.

The Blues’ only other defeat since December 4 was a 1-0 loss at Premier League champions Manchester City – a period of time that spans 26 fixtures in all competitions.

As Thomas Tuchel noted after his side’s latest win at Middlesbrough, the ability of his players to focus on events on the field while chaos reigns off it is “impressive”, as was the way in which they handled the challenge of ending their hosts’ FA Cup charge.

Chelsea never looked like following in the footsteps of Manchester United and Tottenham in losing to Boro, and Tuchel’s strong teamsheet – bolstered by the likes of Antonio Rudiger, Thiago Silva and Mason Mount – made it clear how seriously they were taking their task.

Restricting Boro to zero shots on target reflected Chelsea’s control, while they have now extended their run of playing at least one cup fixture at Wembley to eight seasons.

The aim for Tuchel now will be to reverse his woes at the national stadium, with the German overseeing a shock 1-0 defeat to Leicester in last season’s FA Cup final as well as last month’s Liverpool loss.
Joe Shread

Jones showcases talent on big stage

Isaiah Jones of Middlesbrough during the FA Cup match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough on Saturday 19th March 2022. (Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Isaiah Jones of Middlesbrough in action against Chelsea

Middlesbrough’s willingness to allow Djed Spence, one of the players of the Championship this season, to join Nottingham Forest on loan last August has caused some confusion, but Isaiah Jones’ performance against Chelsea showed why Boro have not missed the 21-year-old quite as much as they might have done.

Spence’s barnstorming performances as the right wing-back in Steve Cooper’s system have earned rave reviews, but Jones did his best Spence impression in the same position for Chris Wilder at the Riverside on Saturday as Boro went down 2-0 to the European and world champions.

The 22-year-old has been a Boro player for nearly three years but had spent a grand total of one minute on the field for the club before being elevated to the first team this season.

Jones has not looked back since being given his chance in the opening-day draw at Fulham, while his versatility – he has played upfront, on the left and now on the right this season – has been a welcome boost for Boro.

Before this season, Jones had spent most of his time as a Boro player on loan in Scotland with St Johnstone and Queen of the South, having joined from non-League side Tooting & Mitcham in 2019.

But this year he has impressed in Boro’s FA Cup wins over Manchester United at Old Trafford and Tottenham on Teesside, while he now has a standout performance against Chelsea on his CV.

Jones’ performances may well have alerted a wider-range of observers to his talent, but Boro will be hoping he remains a key player as they continue to push for a return to the Premier League for the first time in 13 years.
Joe Shread

Underrated Mateta leads Palace charge

Everton struggled to contain Jean-Philippe Mateta at Selhurst Park
Everton struggled to contain Jean-Philippe Mateta at Selhurst Park

Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and the rest of Crystal Palace’s supporting forwards will attract most of the plaudits for Crystal Palace’s 4-0 thrashing of Everton. But a word too for Jean-Philippe Mateta.

The striker’s impact was modest following his arrival from Mainz, initially on loan, in January of last year, but the move was made permanent at the end of the most recent transfer window and his well-taken goal against Everton was his third in six games.

The 24-year-old is keeping Christian Benteke and the £18.5m Odsonne Edouard out of the Palace team and, while he remains rough around the edges in certain respects, it is increasingly clear why.

He should have had a second goal on Sunday, his delay in shooting allowing Seamus Coleman to make a recovery tackle late in the first half, but his physicality proved difficult, caused problems for Everton throughout and the combination play with Eze to create that opening shortly before the break showed he offers more than goals.

“I’m really happy for him because I don’t think JP gets the credit he deserves,” said Patrick Vieira afterwards.

“Against City and in the last couple of games he played, he had massive impact on the team performance.

“That’s why I’m happy for him to get rewarded with the goal he scored because he’s been running all around the place, on the defensive side and the offensive side, running in behind, holding the ball, stretching the opposition back three.”

Expect Vieira to put his trust in Mateta again at Wembley.
Nick Wright

Muddled selection shows Everton issues

Everton's Anthony Gordon and manager Frank Lampard at full time after the Emirates FA Cup quarter final match at Selhurst Park, London. Picture date: Sunday March 20, 2022.
Everton’s Anthony Gordon and manager Frank Lampard at full-time

Frank Lampard’s reign as Everton boss began in February with a 4-1 home win over Brentford in the FA Cup that left Goodison Park rocking and Toffees fans looking forward to a bright new era.

But fast forward just six weeks and Everton’s cup run has come to an abrupt end thanks to their 4-0 thrashing at Crystal Palace, while five defeats in seven games have left them facing up to the reality of relegation from the Premier League for the first time.

Lampard’s side have now conceded nine goals in their last two away games, while the former Chelsea boss is the first Everton manager to lose each of his first four away games in charge of the club in 66 years.

It is rare for any team to be able to take positives from a 4-0 hammering, but this one was particularly grisly for Everton. Not only was their three-man defence ripped up time and again by a rampant Palace side, but they also lost Andros Townsend to what looked to be a serious injury.

Much has been made of the muddled way in which this Toffees squad has been put together, but the sight of wingers Anthony Gordon and Alex Iwobi ending the game at Selhurst Park as wing-backs illustrated the point.

The fact that Nathan Patterson and Vitaliy Mykolenko – two actual wing-backs who were bought under Rafa Benitez just before he was replaced by Lampard at a cost of £36m – were sat on the bench as unused substitutes was yet another reminder of how little thought has gone into building this team.

With the FA Cup now off the agenda for Everton, they must turn their focus solely onto staying in the Premier League, and have 11 games to ensure they do so.

Lampard has a number of issues to solve – fixing a shambolic defence and learning to win on the road chief among them – and deciding on a settled side that does not rely on a square-pegs-in-round-holes approach could be crucial to doing just that.
Joe Shread

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