Welcome to world football's Monday Morning Hangover, an homage to the NFL section's own Monday Morning Hangover, in which we round up the key stories and important points from the last weekend in world football.
With an inevitable focus on events from the FA Cup, let's get started.
Bantams Keep Punching Above Their Weight
The fairy tale will not be televised. Once again, television companies overlooked Bradford City in the FA Cup, choosing instead to broadcast a couple of all-Premier League ties that hardly got the pulses races.
Therefore, for the second successive round, they missed out on a giant-killing, as Sunderland joined Chelsea in the League One side's big book of cup upsets—Phil Parkinson's side moving into the quarter-finals of the competition in the process.
You almost cannot blame the television companies for overlooking the Bantams despite (or perhaps because of) their recent cup pedigree. In 2013, when they reached the Capital One Cup final, they capitulated pretty emphatically against Swansea City in front of a worldwide audience—a viewing experience that few neutrals will have wanted to see again this year.
Instead, Parkinson's men again raised their game to put Premier League opposition to the sword; a combination of a woeful pitch and another fine performance from ex-Sunderland forward Jon Stead securing a memorable victory for the League One side.
"This tops the Chelsea win because of the expectation on us," Stead, something of a journeyman, who is on loan at Bradford from Huddersfield Town, told the BBC afterward. "It's ended up, dare I say, a comfortable victory. The fans were magnificent and we made things hard for Sunderland right from the off, getting in their faces."
There will not be much time to dwell on the result. Bradford face Leyton Orient in the league on Wednesday, needing to win if they are to enhance their promotion prospects. Nevertheless, the club seem to be combining league and cup responsibilities far better than a number of much larger sides.
"We had a couple of minutes' celebration in the dressing room, but we've got the Orient game coming up this week so it's a quick turnaround," Stead noted. "We're having to postpone league games because of our cup ties, but we're happy about that. It's been a fantastic effort from the lads."
It certainly was, even if Sunderland helped them to a significant extent with a heartless, insipid display. Black Cats boss Gus Poyet has generally avoided significant criticism for the way his side play for as long as they have looked on course to maintain their Premier League status, but this felt like an embarrassment (fortunately not in front of a live television audience) the fans will not soon forgive.
One fan even brought a TV controller to Valley Parade to make a joke about the match on Twitter—perhaps an excessive commitment to the bit that nevertheless highlighted how dispiriting Sunderland have been to watch on occasion this season.
Poyet, amid a number of excuses, did offer praise for the opposition. Per The Shields Gazette, he said:
They deserve all the credit. The good thing about this Bradford team is they didn’t win every game here. They won at Stamford Bridge against the best team in the league right now, on a great pitch.
Now they’ve played here and they beat us on this pitch. You have to give them plenty of credit for what they do. Phil understands what is needed and his team has been doing it.
It is a great credit for Phil Parkinson and his boys.
It was hardly a magnanimous display from the Uruguayan (who said at one point that he would "not blame the pitch" before mentioning the state of the playing surface in seemingly every other sentence), but it seemed to sum up the weekend in the FA Cup.
A couple of Premier League sides slipped into the quarter-finals with ease, but many more earned the ire of sections of their fanbase as they let a glorious opportunity to move closer to cup glory float away. Stoke City suffered similar embarrassment to Sunderland against Blackburn Rovers, while even West Ham United—pushing for European qualification in the Premier League—were barracked by sections of the travelling support following their shellacking against West Bromwich Albion.
Picking which games to televise is undoubtedly a thankless task, a game of calculated gambles that is always likely to blow up in your face every couple of rounds. With that in mind, then, perhaps all rights holders will be relieved that from here on out, every remaining tie will be broadcast live; finally, fans might get to see what Bradford still have left to produce. Opponents will be wary.
King for a Day
Prior to Saturday's last-16 game with Stoke, Blackburn forward Josh King had scored just one goal for the club all season. By the final whistle, however, he had extended that tally to four, his hat-trick dumping Mark Hughes' side out of the FA Cup as Gary Bowyer's men moved within one win of Wembley.
Suddenly, speculation emerged that the forward, who was previously not scoring goals, would not still be at Blackburn come the end of the season. Bowyer said afterward, per The Guardian:
The club are in talks with Josh, we are trying to take care of that. Full credit to the owners because they stuck to their guns with their valuation with Jordan Rhodes in the August window and Rudy in this window.
Obviously we have a long way to go before then and a lot of football to play, hopefully our situation might have changed and the lads will want to stay here themselves.
It seems optimistic that King (a former Manchester United academy player) would spark interest from other clubs based on one game alone—the days of managers and sporting directors doing their scouting through Match of the Day are surely gone—but the Norway international's finishing quality was nevertheless in evidence at Ewood Park.
Rovers, after a dire few years, are now just a step away from a Wembley semi-final, and if the draw is kind to them, they might even go into their next match as favourites to get there.
Goal of the Weekend
Goal of the Weekend: Runner-Up Edition
- Leicester City may have lost against Aston Villa on Sunday, but Andrej Kramaric's quality shone through. The Croatian scored a brilliant header to give the Foxes fleeting hope of forcing a replay, but even before that, he impressed with his maturity on the ball and his movement off it. Kramaric is clearly a talented player—if Leicester go down, the neutral will hope his future does not end up being kicked around in the Championship. Similarly, he may be key to the club's diminishing hopes of survival.
- The BBC could hardly have chosen a more suitable pundit to commentate on Aston Villa's first game since Tim Sherwood took over as boss than Robbie Savage—inexplicably overrated and excessively regarded in his chosen second career. Sherwood will be hoping his own honeymoon period at Villa Park will end up lasting as long as Savage's media career bafflingly has.
- It was interesting to hear Brendan Rodgers point out that Liverpool had noticed Crystal Palace tended not to "follow in" free-kicks around their own box, a proclivity Mario Balotelli and Adam Lallana exploited to maximum effect on Saturday evening at Selhurst Park. Lallana's finish ultimately secured a 2-1 win for Liverpool; Alan Pardew should severely punish his defenders if they ever make the same lazy mistake again.
- On the subject of Balotelli, for the second time in a week, the Italian made an important intervention having come off the bench for his side. Balotelli might still be some way away from earning the full trust of his manager, but he is certainly (belatedly) making a start.
- Another striker to make his presence known on Saturday was Yakubu, as the recent Reading signing decided his side's tie against Derby. It was a typically clinical finish from the forward, the sort of quality that might stand the Royals in good stead as they bid to make the most of the remainder of this campaign. "As soon as I saw him warming up to go on, I thought 'Oh no, not him!'," Derby boss Steve McClaren said afterward, per Sky Sports. "I don't know how old he is now—I didn't really know his age when I signed him for Boro, and he was telling me he was only 25—but he'll always have that pace and ability to finish."
- Is there a striker better suited to Arsenal than Olivier Giroud? Others might be more physical or more clearly clinical in front of goal, but Giroud's understated efficiency seems to offer a natural counterpoint to the flowing technical quality of many of his attacking team-mates. On Sunday, it was the Frenchman who got both goals—in very similar fashion—in the victory over Middlesbrough; he will rarely get the same attention and praise as Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla, but his value in front of goal should never be dismissed.
- It perhaps goes without saying that the draws have a huge impact on any FA Cup campaign, but the quarter-final draw might be particularly pivotal this season. With such a wide range of clubs involved in the last eight, the difference between a home tie against Bradford (or Reading) and an away trip to Arsenal is significant and will greatly influence which sides will feel most confident about continuing to Wembley.
Good Week, Bad Week
Jon Stead: Knocks out his old team and sends his new one into the quarter-finals. That must feel sweet.
Josh King: Four goals all season, three of them against Stoke. He knows how to make an impact.
Shay Given: Gave Tim Sherwood something to think about with at least one world-class save.
Mario Balotelli: Made another impact as a substitute. Encouraging, if small signs of progress.
Brown Ideye: More goals, more confidence, more reason to be cheerful.
Patrick Bamford: Disappointment at failing to influence Arsenal game was etched on his face afterward.
Sam Allardyce: Shocking capitulation did not play well with club's supporters.
Gus Poyet: Willingness to blame anything but himself or his team is beginning to wear very, very thin.
TV companies: You don't show Bradford—again?—and you will live to rue it.
Unhappy Hammers See Glorious Opportunity Slip Away
On paper at least, it was West Brom, not West Ham, who did not really need the hassle of an extended cup run. Tony Pulis's side still have significant work to do to retain their Premier League status, whereas the Hammers have seemed to slowly slip out of the running for a top-six finish over the last few weeks.
This Hammers team remains a better one than the club has had for many a year, however, which is perhaps why the fans were starting to believe that a cup victory could be on the cards. Instead, Sam Allardyce's side went down without a whimper at the Hawthorns, allowing Pulis' men to continue their winning habit and move (theoretically at least) to just two games against lower-league opposition from a Wembley final.
Perhaps it is understandable, then, that fans would turn so quickly on a team that has performed so admirably all season, with the club's co-owner David Sullivan receiving questioning, abuse and even demands to sack Allardyce as he (like many travelling supporters) tried to leave the ground early on Saturday.
Allardyce blamed the fixture list (West Ham played on Sunday and Wednesday in the league) for the pathetic effort, a claim somewhat undermined by the fact West Brom had to deal with the exact same issues.
Allardyce said, per the Daily Mail:
When they are happy they cheer you and applaud and say how well you have done. When they are not happy then they show their disappointment. It’s the same all over the country.
It’s my job to get the players out on the field, hopefully entertain them and win as much as we can, which is what we have done for 85-90 per cent of this season.
The disappointment about this is it’s a cup game and we’re out. We will just have to try and bounce back and finish the season as strongly as we can.
Perhaps we are going to slowly see a change in approach from Premier League managers, especially those in charge of clubs in the relative anonymity of mid-table, at this stage of future competitions. With the fans clearly eager for some tangible success to justify their long-held support, playing weaker teams will no longer be justifiable or acceptable.
Allardyce may have learned that this week, so perhaps he will not make the same mistake if the opportunity arises again.
Monday Night Football: Preston North End vs. Manchester United
This year's FA Cup seems to have been something of an impromptu education for Louis van Gaal in the finer points of English football, particularly away from the bright lights of the Premier League: He has been south west to Yeovil Town, south east to Cambridge United and now local (comparatively speaking) to Preston North End.
All three games have been away, but nevertheless have perhaps offered the Dutchman the kindest possible progression through the rounds—even if he has taken to calling all such ties "gladioli games" (because they are either death or victory), due to the reaction that would be in store if United went out.
Preston, in theory at least, might be the toughest of the three opponents United have been drawn against, but at this point, Van Gaal's men should know what to expect and be better prepared to secure a comfortable victory.
If United were playing better, of course, confidence in that statement would be much higher, but even this far into the season, Van Gaal is still struggling to find a cohesive attacking strategy for his side.
"Obviously they're pleased to be back in among the Champions League [places], but there have been a few boos about the long balls and the style of play has not been great," Preston's veteran forward Kevin Davies said, per the Manchester Evening News. He continued:
They've spent money, and they should be contesting those Champions League spots.
In terms of watching them, I don't think they're as exciting as they used to be but, when you lose someone like Sir Alex Ferguson, it's always going to take time.
They've got a bit of resilience about them. Not playing well and winning games you have to have. He's not had a settled side, there's been a lot of injuries. I don't think he's quite found the right system.
The system is important, but it should not be decisive in this instance. United will win, as Van Gaal takes another important step toward ending his first season at the club with a trophy.
Prediction: Preston 1-2 Manchester United