Olli Meek reflects on the FA Cup third round fixtures, with Arsenal crashing out to add to Arsene Wenger’s woes.
Some say it is the greatest weekend in the football calendar, and whether or not this ends up being true for one’s own team is subject to the result, but we can be sure that, somewhere in the football league pyramid, FA Cup 3rd Round weekend causes upsets that are only dreamt of throughout the rest of the season.
A more modern introduction amongst the tradition and ceremony of the biggest domestic cup in English football, Friday night was the starting point with the Merseyside derby at Anfield and Manchester United hosting Derby. The former caused the predictable fireworks, with an FA investigation already implemented into the conduct of Roberto Firmino and Mason Holgate, as well as Virgil van Dijk giving what for to those who dared to question his ridiculous price tag with a late winner on his debut. It’s safe to say that there are worse ways to introduce yourself to the Kop. United were less dramatic in their dispatching of Derby, with in form Jesse Lingard stealing the show.
The contest was preceded by Jose Mourinho’s latest instalment of “Press Conference Trash-Talk”- this time with Antonio Conte. If it didn’t already this made it feel like a boxing match, Jose in the red corner, and Conte in the blue. With Chelsea drawing 0-0 in a distinctly unremarkable Saturday tea-time fixture at Norwich, it ended up being more KSI vs Joe Weller than McGregor vs Mayweather. Elsewhere there were wins for Manchester City with a 4-1 home win against Burnley, Southampton taking a 1-0 at Fulham back to the south coast, West Brom winning against Exeter City 0-2, and Newcastle winning 3-1 against Luton Town.
Amongst the run-of-the-mill premier league results throughout the rest of Saturday came a significant upset from League Two Coventry City who consigned Stoke City to a 2-1 defeat at the Ricoh Arena. This was to be the last match in charge for Stokes manager, former Chelsea and Manchester United striker Mark Hughes, who was sacked hours after the defeat after a poor run of form including 5 defeats in 7 games, and Stoke lying in the relegation zone.
Sunday made up for the drama that was lacking the previous afternoon, with multiple upsets, many goals, and a couple of red cards thrown in for good measure. The first of the day was Newport County, who played Leeds in a lunchtime kick-off at Rodney Parade. With the away side in the Championship, and Newport only avoiding relegation from League Two on the final day of last season, when Gaetano Berardi put Leeds ahead in the 9th minute, it looked like the match would be a long afternoon for the hosts.
Naturally, when Leeds defender Conor Shaughnessy turned the ball into his own net, the hosts were in dreamland, and a trip to Elland Road beckoned. This wouldn’t be the final twist in the afternoon, as Shawn McCoulsky then headed home for the Exiles in the final minute of normal time, triggering delirium, a 2-1 score line, and a fourth-round home tie with Premier League heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur. To add insult to injury, Leeds were reduced to ten men in injury time to seal a famous win for Newport.
Shrewsbury were next up to make life difficult for a side significantly higher than them in the footballing pyramid, holding West Ham to a draw at home, and, despite the Hammers struggles in the league this season, one can only imagine it will be difficult for them at the London Stadium. However, anything can happen in the cup.
The weekend though, in my opinion, saved the best until last, with Nottingham Forest’s stunning win over an Arsenal side whose only titles in the last 14 years have been the FA Cup, unless one counts the Community Shield, but I feel that would be a little insulting to them given their stature and prestige in English football. Forest’s young side took the lead through Eric Lichaj poaching the knock-down from a free-kick on 20 minutes, only for the Big Friendly German Per Mertesacker to equalise mere minutes later. However, just shy of half time, an absolute pearler of a volley from man-of-the-moment Lichaj went sailing into the top corner from the edge of the penalty area, David Ospina rooted to his line.
A cliché it may be, but this goal certainly changed the team-talk from then Forest manager Gary Brazil filling in as caretaker manager. Man of the Match Ben Brereton then slotted a penalty in the second half, and Forest fans started letting the dream of a fourth round tie enter their minds. Danny Welbeck did put the brakes on this dream with a goal on 79 minutes to keep Arsenal in the game, but the aforementioned dreams were front and centre with five minutes to go when Kieran Dowell put away another penalty to make it 4-2. Joe Worrall, the home side’s defender, was evidently so confident in his colleagues’ ability to hold onto the lead that he was sent off for a nasty challenge before time to round up a weekend of considerable drama.
The only game to take place on Monday night was Brighton against Crystal Palace, a rivalry that despite much hot air, very few people can actually put their finger on genuinely why it exists. A heated grudge match in the cup, under the lights, on a blustery weekday evening on the south coast- where better to trial Video Assistant Refereeing for the first time in English football, or so we thought. The match went without incident until the final minutes when ex-Palace striker Glen Murray bundled home to make the score 2-1 Brighton, but even then, there was minimal reason to use the VAR for a fairly innocuous poachers finish.