Chelsea win the FA Cup weekend but Man City, West Brom disappoint
The FA Cup fifth round is nearly over, but there has been more than enough action for Iain Macintosh to run the rule over another weekend's worth of Heroes and Villains:
It's true that it was quite literally men against boys (and reserves), but Chelsea still deserve credit for the way they went about their business on Sunday. It was tight for a time, but they held their nerve and went on to a 5-1 victory. Heaven only knows what was going on behind the scenes at Cobham under Jose Mourinho, but this team has found its groove now that he's gone. Cesc Fabregas finally looks like an international midfielder again and not a sulky teenager forced to mow the lawn against his will. With the Champions League last-16 tie against PSG still in the balance, that can only be good news for the Blues.
Crystal Palace certainly can't be accused of failing to take the FA Cup seriously. Looking at their recent form, it's the only competition they do take seriously. It's been over two months since they won a game in any other capacity. Still, if they can't generate a bit of momentum following Sunday's 1-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane, they never will. Thank goodness, then, for Martin Kelly's first half goal. Alan Pardew's South London renaissance has ground to a halt in 2016 but perhaps this will be the catalyst to start it up again. Only Reading stand between them and Wembley -- albeit for the semifinals.
It's been 36 years since West Ham won the FA Cup -- sealed with a Trevor Brooking header, and he didn't score many of them, apparently -- but there's a growing feeling that this might be their year. They have the sentimental narrative, in that this is their last season at Upton Park. They have the team, in that Slaven Bilic's side have proved themselves capable of beating the elite of English football. They also have a preposterously good player in Dmitri Payet, scorer of another marvellous goal (one of two) against Blackburn on Sunday. Are the stars aligning?
Eldin Jakupovic doesn't get many chances between the sticks for Hull City, but he certainly made sure he took this one. The peripatetic, one-time Swiss international was a human force field during Saturday's 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium, keeping Arsenal at bay with a series of saves and earning his team a rematch that you suspect neither manager really wanted. Jakupovic will be a hero to the Hull fans, for sure, but they're unlikely to look upon him with such warmth at the Football Association. Where are they going to put this replay?
Jakupovic wasn't the only backup goalkeeper to stake a claim for his side's first team. Everton's Joel Robles made a fine penalty save to frustrate Bournemouth before his teammates took over and squashed the Cherries. It's good timing for Robles, who usurped Tim Howard last week. He held onto his place against West Bromwich Albion while the American sat on the bench, only to find himself at fault for the Baggies' goal. After a performance like this, Howard should stay on the bench a little longer.
If there's one group of men that really doesn't require any extra money, it's professional footballers. Why supporters ever throw coins at them is anyone's guess, but it seems to be a thing again. First a West Bromwich Albion fan hit Chris Brunt with a coin on Saturday, then a number of coins were hurled at celebrating Manchester City players from the Chelsea end on Sunday. Typical Chelsea -- always trying to outspend their rivals. Still, given that most grounds are layered with CCTV cameras, those misbehaving fans are certain to see a return on their investment. With both clubs promising to ban offenders for life, they won't have to pay for any more season tickets.
Brunt's spirited attempt to locate and punish the lone coin-thrower himself was one of the few impressive moments for the Baggies. Tony Pulis' side were flat all afternoon in a 3-1 defeat, which was odd, given that this is a competition they could have conceivably won. They are, after all, practically impossible to break down when they put their backs to the walls. All the more baffling then that they were so weak at the Madjeski. Two headed goals from two set-pieces against West Bromwich Albion? If that's not an omen of forthcoming doom, we don't know what is.
Ravaged as they have been by a series of increasingly terrible chairmen, Leeds United haven't had much to offer English football of late, but a classic own goal from Scott Wooton serves as some kind of compensation. Most own goals these days seem to be the excusable by-product of desperation, unfortunate touches from last-gasp lunges. Wooton's was old school: a clumsy, off balance swipe of the leg and a scarcely plausible change of direction from the ball. A nightmare for poor Wooton but magnificent stuff for the own goal connoisseur.
It would be wrong to blame Manuel Pellegrini for the one-sided thrashing that Manchester City received at Stamford Bridge. He was protecting the best interests of his club by preserving players for the Champions League game this week. You have to ask though: Why did this game have to be played on Sunday? Why couldn't it be scheduled earlier? Why do we have to be such slaves to the demands of television executives? They got their way in the end. They got their late Sunday kickoff. Here's another question: Was it worth it?
It's time the Football Association decided what they want the FA Cup to be. The notion that it is some last bastion of all that is traditional about English football is laughable. The final kicks off at tea-time, the semi-finals are at Wembley, the knock-out rounds are spread across several days and the cup carries the name of a corporate sponsor. You only have to look at the team sheets this weekend to know where it stands in the priorities of most of its entrants. Put a Champions League place at the end of it. The time-honoured counter-argument that an unexpected winner might perform badly and cost England co-efficient points is null and void when you consider the progress of the nation's biggest names of late.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.