MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Fox Beats The Devil
Let's avoid the obvious and start with Leicester City, shall we? They did win, after all. And they won comfortably, almost easily, in a manner that made their troubles in Europe look all the more peculiar. Perhaps we shall just have to accept that Slavia Prague are better than Manchester United.
Manchester United sign Raphael Varane from Real Madrid
It would be wildly premature to suggest that Kelechi Iheanacho is now a better striker than Jamie Vardy. But once again, Leicester's terrifying no.9 didn't trouble the scorers, while Iheanacho, showing the quick thinking and deft touch of all proper strikers, accepted gifts first from Fred and then from Scott McTominay.
In any case, it's not a competition. In the absence of James Maddison, Leicester had to find a new way to construct their attack, and it seems to have broken down roughly as follows. Vardy bustles around being his usual irritating self, stretching defences and running in behind, Youri Tielemans steps up to do the passing out of midfield, and Iheanacho scores the actual goals. It's a cooperative dream out there.
This does rather suggest that Maddison is actually three footballers in a large coat. We certainly have no proof that he is not.
Leicester's reward for overcoming United is a semi-final against Southampton: they'll be favourites, of course, and that's before everybody spends the build-up going "Nine goals! Nine! Nine of them! Nine-nil!" But then, that would have happened with United, too, had Solskjaer's team not happened upon the easiest solution to that semi-final problem: avoid them altogether.
We're not even going to pretend to understand the big selection decisions. Why Bruno Fernandes, who started the second leg against Real Sociedad despite United's 4-0 lead, only got half an hour here. Why Luke Shaw was on the bench beside him. Apart from anything else, it's the international break. For a manager so indebted to Sir Alex Ferguson, you'd think Solskjaer would be able to manage the old "Sorry, he's tweaked a nostril hair, we'll keep him here" routine.
But a weakened line-up doesn't serve to fully explain United's performance, which was riddled with errors and really put the "lack" into lacklustre. That United could only manage nine attempts on goal speaks to Leicester's excellent defensive shape. That three of those attempts came from Harry Maguire suggests that something, somewhere, is not working as it should.
The errors were perhaps more pronounced and more efficiently punished, but in many ways this was the same weird United performance we've seen a lot this season. Lots of huffing, lots of puffing, lots of waiting around for somebody to find one weird trick and blow the house down. Sometimes it comes. Sometimes the big bad wolf is knackered and sat on the bench.
Earlier in the week, to general consternation, Solskjaer referred to the cups as "ego things". He was trying to make a point that he'd rather be in charge of a good team, to which trophies then naturally come, than get carried away celebrating a medal that might serve as cover for his side's flaws. And as ever, the most powerful curse is to be given precisely what you ask for. There will be no FA Cup winner's medal to cover this team's inadequacies.
The Big Two
Over in the other half of the draw, both Manchester City and Chelsea were pushed hard for their victories by Everton and Sheffield United, but both prevailed, to set up one heck of a semi-final. Indeed, you might almost wish this were the final… were it not for the fact that finals are always rubbish. Semi-finals are far more relaxed, which can sometimes make them far more intense. It's a funny old game.
Accordingly, if the country's two best teams are to run into each other, better to do it at this stage so Abide With Me doesn't put them off. And we're highly excited at the prospect of this game: City are the closest thing to an unstoppable force in the Premier League, and Chelsea a near-immovable object. Kevin De Bruyne against N'Golo Kanté: both a fun match-up, and the tie in microcosm.
Tuchel wasn't in the job the first time City faced Chelsea, way back in January, and by the time they play again in the league City will be enjoying the sweet squad rotation of champions. So this should be a proper game on its own terms. But also, we suspect that this will be the first skirmish in the Premier League's next big rivalry.
We're all treating this season as a bit of a free hit, given Everything (!). But if you asked us to predict next season's first and second place, based on the state of things at the moment, we'd confidently announce City and Chelsea. Then, if you asked us to specify the order, we'd shuffle our feet, look around awkwardly, pretend to catch sight of something through a window behind you and, when you turned round again, we'd be gone.
Before Saturday's big game, just one point separated Newcastle United and Brighton. The former were widely understood to be in trouble; their manager clinging on. The latter have gathered praise from all quarters. And yet, just one point. One tiny point.
Each team owes their precarious position to a single, glaring flaw. Brighton's is that they don't score goals, Newcastle's that they don't play football. But then on Saturday night Brighton took advantage of the latter to solve the former, moving themselves four clear of the Magpies and six clear of Fulham. It's looking very much like three from four down at the bottom.
And honestly, we'll be surprised if Bruce is there to see it through. Newcastle didn't just look bad, after all; they looked like they were playing a different game. A worse one, a tired one. Afterwards, he was glowing in his praise for Brighton, but he also sounded slightly baffled: the tone of voice of a caveman who has looked over to see his neighbours holding their meat over something orange and hot and flickering.
If Newcastle have a plan beyond "Hold on and see if Callum Wilson can nick one", then the Warm-Up can't tell what it is. And Wilson's injured. The last game of the season is away at Fulham, which might be a relegation shoot-out. On the other hand, that trip to west London comes after games again Spurs, West Ham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester City, so they could be done, dusted, and thoroughly down.
IN OTHER NEWS
Goalmouth scrambles? Yes please. Goalkeeper goals? Sign us up. Both at the same time? Oh boy.
It would have been Brian Clough's birthday over the weekend, so what better excuse do you need to make yourself a cup of tea and settle down with the full Clough-Revie interview from 1974. Television so tense you can feel it.
Over to the Athletic for a fascinating interview with one of modern football's most enigmatic and misunderstood figures: the administrator whose job it is to save the bankrupt club. In this case, Paul Stanley, who reckons Wigan Athletic owe him a statue.
I know some think we sold Kieffer Moore too cheaply but what these critics don’t know is we still owed £1.65 million to Barnsley for him. I just laugh at the idea of these spotty teenagers playing Football Manager in their bedrooms telling me these players are worth £20 million. In a pandemic!"
It's day one of the international break, which means the big leagues all put their feet up as the players set out on their working holidays. So please welcome into the spotlight: Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. VFL Bochum! The world is watching.
One Warm-Up writer who definitely deserves a statue is Ben Snowball, who will be here Tuesday morning.
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