FA Cup Hangover: Liverpool Get Lucky as Man United Hit Peak LVG Boredom Level

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2016

Liverpool earned a replay Jurgen Klopp didn't seem overly keen to fit into his schedule.
Liverpool earned a replay Jurgen Klopp didn't seem overly keen to fit into his schedule.Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The montages were familiar, the starting XIs less so. Ronnie Radford will cash his royalty cheque on Monday morning just as he has done every year since 1972, while Keith Houchen is likely still getting up from a front-room reenactment of his diving header in the 1987 FA Cup final.

Chas and Dave and Ricky Villa are unlikely to be usurped by Brad Smith and the Kindergarten Klopps anytime soon.

The world's oldest cup competition is still capable of conjuring magic, as Exeter City, Oxford United, Eastleigh, Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth and Shrewsbury Town, among others to a lesser extent, will all attest. It's just when you can recognize as many names from Exeter's teamsheet as Liverpool's, it's a bit like watching a tightrope walker with a visible harness. The spell is broken before it's even cast.

While projecting an illusion of interest, most Premier League clubs are as transparent as a David Blaine DVD replete with a "How to Do It Yourself" extra. What Manchester United supporters would give to have Louis van Gaal ensconced in a glass box for 44 days. "Sorry, Louis, can't hear you. What's that? I think he's saying all-out attack..." Paul Scholes sat beneath the plinth in a rocking chair, frying bacon.

Oh, that was Manchester United's strongest XI? Bit awkward. Let's move on.

The majority of England's elite indulge the FA Cup as one might a grandparent hankering after a trip to Blackpool or Bridlington. With an ironic detachment, an afternoon stroll down a dilapidated pier has its charm, but a prolonged stay in a coastal town that they forgot to close down is out of the question. Not when Premier League battles to finish 15th over 16th or ninth over 11th are in full flow.

Real glory is measured in silver coins, not silverware.

In his column for the Telegraph, Harry Redknapp stated his view that poor fixture scheduling has done the FA Cup a disservice, with many managers having picked sides this weekend with one eye on midweek Premier League matches:

So you can see why so many teams will have made changes with that midweek Premier League programme looming, especially as a lot of them are dealing with extra injuries after all the matches that were played over Christmas and New Year. It becomes a juggling act. What I do not understand, however, is when those four or five teams in the middle of the table, who are not at risk of relegation, do not have a real go for it.

Norwich City, Swansea City and Sunderland all made significant changes to their starting XIs at the weekend. All now can focus on the battle to stay in the Premier League. Who said romance is dead?

Klopp gamble just about pays off

A treatment room that is standing room only at present on 13 wounded and counting, when allied with Wednesday's upcoming game against Arsenal, meant 11 changes from the Liverpool team that started against Stoke City.

Hamstrung by hamstrings he may be, yet even so it seemed a touch risible when Jurgen Klopp claimed he had no alternative but to name a starting XI at Exeter that was the second-youngest in the club's history, at an average age of just 22.87 years.

Five debutants would have been six had referee Stuart Attwell not ruled Liverpool mascot Mighty Red ineligible on the grounds of possessing an oversized head. He was due to start alongside Jose Enrique at centre-half.

No such escape for Christian Benteke. The beleaguered Belgian was made to feel unique. Tossing him the captain's armband was effectively a dentist giving a child a sticker for being brave.

Enrique and Benteke accounted for 117 of the XI's 135 appearances in total, with the pair being the only two players to have played more than four matches for the club.

"Who are you?" asked Klopp politely mocked the home faithful when Liverpool's patchwork quilt of a side took to the field.

There was much to admire about an Exeter team that proved full value for a 2-2 draw in front of a sellout 8,298 crowd at St James Park, which earned the club a replay at Anfield that could be worth up to £1 million.

Exeter City striker Tom Nichols scored the game's opening goal at St James Park.
Exeter City striker Tom Nichols scored the game's opening goal at St James Park.Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Exeter did great. Paul Tisdale would have earned a feather in his cap had he not already sported one in his pork pie hat, and a number of his charges showed they were the equals of their elevated company—not just in terms of spirit, but also skill.

And yet, without wishing to be a curmudgeon cubed even in a column that pre-warns of its miserableness by clearly being marked "Hangover," was it really that much of an upset? Was this really that elevated an Exeter performance, or rather a solid and measured display in keeping with how they are set out to play by their manager every week?

In his report for the Times, Henry Winter wrote: "Playing with pride in the shirt and endless adventure, Exeter City made a mockery of the 76 league places between them and Liverpool at a raucous St James Park last night."

It all makes for good copy, but to suggest there were 76 league places between that Liverpool side and Exeter is akin to claiming having seen the Beatles in concert because you once saw Ringo deliver a live performance of Thomas the Tank Engine. On Friday night, Benteke did a passable voiceover for Percy.

Lee Holmes' performance for Exeter will be remembered for the goal he scored direct from a corner to leave Adam Bogdan red-faced and Liverpool trailing just before half-time.

Yet to do so does disservice to a performance of such assuredness of touch it was hard to fathom why at 28 years old, a career once of such promisehe is Derby County's youngest-ever player and goalscorer, and the second-youngest player ever in FA Cup historyhas stalled to the extent he now plays his football for a club 17th in League Two.

While some of Liverpool's youngsters such as Cameron Brannagan, Joao Teixeira and Smith, whose 73rd-minute equaliser tied the game at 2-2, showed enough to suggest they are following an upward trajectory, many—if not the majority—will experience careers closer to Holmes' than those who will replace them for the Arsenal game.

"I can't believe we have to play another game!" Klopp said at the final whistle, per the Guardian's Stuart James. He sounded like a man who may view a draw as being just about the worst result possible for Liverpool. Five games in 18 days now follow as they look to juggle assaults on the Capital One Cup, UEFA Europa League and a top-four finish. It's fair to say an FA Cup replay will be fairly low on the priority list.

No real surprise, but no less a pity either.

Boos in victory a new low for dire United?

Another hugely problematic afternoon for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United.
Another hugely problematic afternoon for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

Louis van Gaal can be accused of a lengthy list of crimes this season. Not taking the FA Cup seriously cannot be numbered among them.

Saturday's 1-0 defeat of League One side Sheffield United saw him employ a full-strength Manchester United starting XI. That gets the positives out of the way.

This was listless and lifeless to another level as it extended United's run without a first-half goal at Old Trafford to 10 matches. They needed an injury-time Wayne Rooney penalty to see off a Sheffield United team that did not face a shot on target until Matteo Darmian's on 68 minutes. The Italian's effort brought ironic cheers from the home faithful. Rooney's winner barely received more.

Scholes' vitriolic assessment on BT Sport post-match went viral, and it was hard to disagree with the most withered of verdicts, per the Telegraph:

I'd be depressed [after that game]. It would take me two or three days to get over that performance. ...

I've tried to defend this team now for the last two or three weeks, it's getting more and more difficult to do it because every time you come to Old Trafford this is what you see; negative football. ...

The players looked bored themselves. There's no spirit, there's nobody having a go at each other, there's no smiling, there's no entertainment. I think even Van Gaal on the bench looks bored, but he'll come out and say he's happy. ...

I see square pegs in round holes with players in the team. ...

The only thing I can say is I'm glad I don't have to go to Sheffield a week on Tuesday.

Such is the tragicomic element to Manchester United this season—to sit through a full 90 minutes can feel a little like watching a performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot on a loop. It's difficult to define what exactly is going on, but before too long, a little existential angst invariably creeps from the protagonists onto the shoulder of the audience. I'd certainly back Godot to turn up sooner than a goal.

Beckett once said: "I have a clear memory of my own fetal existence. It was an existence where no voice, no possible movement could free me from the agony and darkness I was subjected to."

Sounds like most Manchester United supporters I know. Come to think of it, that could be something Juan Mata might say to Marca. Lost in translation would be his defence when brought before the benevolent dictator.

At least on Saturday, Michael Owen was on hand, via his BT Sport co-commentary duty, to provide a little comic relief to punctuate the tedium. He woke many from a deep slumber with this line: "If there's a bit of rain about, it makes the surface wet."

Forget talk of Van Gaal’s version of Manchester United betraying the club's rich tradition of playing attacking and expansive football. To do so is to imply he's falling below the highest of standards, which would give the Dutchman far too much credit. By the standard of any club, across the top four divisions in England, the football United have played this season has been dour.

To watch United has long since ceased to be a form of enjoyment but rather an exercise in endurance for supporters. It doesn't look much more fun for the players. As driving rain fell from gray, industrial, Mancunian clouds, those in red, both on the field and in the stands, resembled factory workers waiting to punch their time cards to clock off for the day.

Sheffield United were compact and defended stoutly, but this was a hearty rather than herculean performance from Nigel Adkins' side. In short, it was a poor League One game. Except one of the teams had spent a quarter of a billion pounds in the past 18 months.

Post-match, Van Gaal was willing to concede DVDs of the game are unlikely to sell out in the club's megastore, but he felt its almost pathological dullness was primarily due to the visitor's defensive setup.

"It's always difficult to play against such an opponent with 10 or 11 players behind the ball," said Van Gaal, per the Independent. "...How many chances have Sheffield United created? Nobody is talking about that."

Greenhouse owners in the Greater Manchester region are said to be increasingly concerned about their properties, amid reports a gentleman in the area is throwing stones that would perhaps more aptly be described as boulders, while repeatedly shouting "process" at anyone who approaches.

Police say he is unlikely to attack.

Ten games and counting for winless Garde and Villa

Captain and manager bear the brunt of fan frustration at Aston Villa.
Captain and manager bear the brunt of fan frustration at Aston Villa.Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

"We cannot win against a team like Wycombe and that's it."

Just another day at the office for Aston Villa. On the back of extending his winless run as manager to 10 matches since succeeding Tim Sherwood, it was a taciturn but strangely serene Remi Garde who faced the media after his side's 1-1 draw at Wycombe Wanderers.

Gareth Ainsworth and his Wycombe players celebrated earning a money-spinning replay as though they had won the FA Cup outright, and they might as well have. It's sad to reduce romance to finance, but for a League Two club, a one-off payday can be the difference between survival and the wall. Wycombe need the cash more than most.

The 2,500 supporters who had travelled south from Birmingham were decidedly more vocal than Garde. Chants of "you're not fit to wear the shirt" alternated with "you don't know what you're doing" as Villa contrived to squander a golden opportunity to end a 109-day hunt for a victory.

Captain Micah Richards remonstrated with a section of the away crowd as he hobbled off injured late in the match, while a police escort was required to shield Villa's players as they boarded the team coach home. To considerable credit amid the anger, large swathes in claret and blue applauded Wycombe's players from the field.

Richards, for his part as captain, handled a potentially volatile situation with dignity as he pleaded "we're trying" to the loaded if not quite rhetorical question: "Where's the passion? There's no passion on that pitch."

In the first period at Adams Park, it was a perfunctory performance from the Premier League side as Richards' scuffed shot deservedly gave them a lead they looked capable of extending.

As ever with Villa, through a lack of dynamism and an absence of leadership, they gave Wycombe the confidence to shed their inhibitions after the interval as they earned a replay courtesy of a Joe Jacobson leveller from the penalty spot. Ashley Westwood's rush of blood to the head that saw him fell Matt Bloomfield needlessly is the type of ill-discipline that can get on-the-cusp managers the sack.

A draw from the jaws of victory, the best Villa can hope to snare in these darkest of days.

Not all supporters had the hump

Curtis curtailed as Kemar takes the Roofe off

Eastleigh and Bolton Wanderers fans get a little carried away in thriller

Roman Abramovich to turn the other Cheek and champion youth?

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