Tag Archives: Liverpool

Selhurst Park

Preview: Crystal Palace v Liverpool (23/11/19)

Liverpool will look to increase their eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League with victory at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

The Reds have dropped just two points this season, and head into the match on the back of a 3-0 victory over champions Manchester City before the international break.

Crystal Palace, meanwhile, sit 12th and have failed to score in three of their last four games, with their last win coming back in early October away at West Ham.

Jurgen Klopp’s side will have to do without the services of Mohamed Salah, with the Egypt forward suffering from an ankle injury and unlikely to be fit despite his return to training this week. Divock Origi, who played 10 minutes for Belgium in their 6-1 victory over Cyprus in midweek, will take his place in the side.

Left-back Andy Robertson is also dealing with an ankle knock meaning he too is set to miss this weekend’s fixture. James Milner is likely to deputise in the Scot’s absence.

Virgil van Dijk missed the Netherlands’ 5-0 win against Estonia for personal reasons, but the talismanic centre-back will be available to start in South London.

Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez both missed England’s victory over Kosovo and the pair are doubts for trip down south. Xherdan Shaqiri returned to training this week but is unlikely to be involved.

Roy Hodgson will have the services of star man Wilfried Zaha available, despite the forward suffering a foot injury during their defeat at Chelsea two weeks ago. Zaha has yet to score in 12 appearances but will start alongside Palace’s top scorer Jordan Ayew, who has four goals this campaign.

Joel Ward was also forced off at Stamford Bridge, with the right-back set to be replaced by Martin Kelly in the eleven. Long-term absentees Mamadou Sakho and Connor Wickham remain sidelined.

Former Liverpool striker Christian Benteke will be looking to kick-start his season against his old side; the Belgian is yet to find the net but could play a role coming off the bench.

Hodgson will also be facing his former club, having spent five months in charge of the Reds in 2010, and will be looking to add to his three previous wins against them in his managerial career.

Liverpool have won their last four meetings with the Eagles, including a 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park early last season. Palace were the last club to win a league match at Anfield, defeating the Reds 2-1 in April 2017, but last won the reverse fixture back in November 2014, two second half goals securing a 3-1 win.

Perhaps their most famous meeting came in May of that same year, when Palace, then managed by Tony Pulis, fought back from three goals down to earn a 3-3 draw, with Dwight Gayle scoring a late brace.

Klopp’s Reds will be hoping to avoid a similar outcome this time as they look to lay down a marker ahead of the weekend’s big game between Manchester City and Chelsea, which kicks off at 5.30pm on the same day.

Selhurst Park photo by Patrick via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0.

Premier League preview

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all favourites – but there can only be one crowned champion.

Defending champions Manchester City will look to retain their title. However, the season ahead looks to be more competitive than the previous campaign.

The pressure is on for new managers Unai Emery of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. Both managers are new and will have to adapt to the Premier League

Manchester City

No manager has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2009.

Pep Guardiola was the first to lead a team to 100 points in an English top-flight season, but retaining the trophy would arguably be every bit as special. “I am read,y” said the Spaniard ahead of the new campaign.

“The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again. I don’t like the feeling of losing games. When you lose, you feel guilty, you feel bad. Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.”

Guardiola’s desire to continue winning was showcased in City’s win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. City will want to retain the title, but their supporters – and owners – also crave Champions League success.

“It’s important to be in it every season,” said Guardiola of club football’s biggest prize. “And we are going to try with all our effort to win it. But if you ask me what the most important competition is, it is the Premier League.”

A comfortable win at Arsenal in their first fixture was an excellent start is a great start, but not th one Emery was hoping for at the Emirates.

Manchester United

Manchester United were not able to challenge City in the title race last season despite spending £400m since Jose Mourinho took over. His side were 19 points behind their city rivals and even failed to play entertaining football for the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho had said his side face a “difficult season” unless they sign a new defender, but the Red Devils failed to add anyone new to their backline.

Despite their runners-up spot in the league and reaching the FA Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea, United still seem a work in progress and Mourinho appears to have a frosty relationship with some of his players.

Many pundits believe his pre-season negativity can only have a detrimental impact on his squad’s morale, and a failure to make a good start to the season could see the Portuguese considering exit strategies.

Tottenham

Spurs had a positive 17-18 season, finishing third in the league, but have failed to add any new players to the current squad.

Tottenham are the only side in the Premier League history to have not added anyone during the summer window.

However, manager Mauricio Pochettino feels they have, “achieved their objective” and did a “great job” by keeping their best players in the transfer window.

They did attempt to sign Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, but were unable to come up with a deal in time.

Spurs have had top-four finishes for the past three seasons, but delays in the completion of their new stadium could have a negative effect both on and off the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal were restricted in the transfer market by the cost of their move to the Emirates for several seasons, and some Spurs fans fear the same happening.

Their team got off to a good start with an opening victory 2-1 at Newcastle, but bigger tests await them.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp spent over £100m in the transfer window with Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri all added to the Liverpool squad.

Klopp knows the pressure is on to deliver trophies, but said: “We are Liverpool; there is no-one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. I really love how the players have reacted this summer and I cannot praise them enough for the way they have stayed hungry.”

Liverpool had an outstanding run in the Champions League and losing 3-1 in the final to Real Madrid was devastating, however, the football played was certainly memorable.

Klopp added: “The attitude in training and in practice, matches have been outstandingly good, the highest level. And when you consider, as it has been for other clubs also, the build-up has been disrupted by players coming back at different times [after the World Cup], it is even more impressive.”

Liverpool hit four past West Ham in style in their opener and are favourites to win the Premier League according to a Sky Sports online poll.

Alisson is seen as player to end their goalkeeping woes and should create more confidence at the back where Klopp’s teams have been lacking in previous seasons.

Chelsea

New boss Sarri is looking to make his mark in the Premier League by getting Chelsea back into the top four after Antonio Conte’s reign ended in acrimony last season despite the FA Cup win.

Having spent £71.6m on 23-year old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, Sarri has been given the funds to get Chelsea back in the title race.

Their opening win against Huddersfield will build confidence, but they looked well short of Man City’s standards in their Community Shield defeat at Wembley.

Sarri has said simply “My job is to win matches”. But having kept hold of key players such as Eden Hazard and Willian, the Italian will be expected to deliver by Chelsea’s ever-impatient hierarchy.

 Arsenal

New manager Emery began his Arsenal venture with a comprehensive home defeat against defending champions Man City.

He has made it clear what he expects from his current squad: “I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want this every day, this is my ambition”.

The Spaniard is under a lot of pressure from fans to perform well following the departure of Arsene Wenger, although the Arsenal board have made it clear, he will be given time.

Arsenal have failed to reach the top-four in the league for the last four seasons. New defensive midfielder Lucas and centre back Sokratis were among the players signed this summer on a fairly conservative budget, with fan favourite Jack Wilshere released and signed by West Ham.

To conclude, the Premier League title race this season could potentially be more competitive and exciting than ever before. Expect Manchester City to become the first team to defend the title since 2009, but also expect their rivals to push them harder, with Liverpool hot on their heels.

Funeral for a fan proves football is more than just a game

For any football fan, the words “it’s only a game” are among the most frustrating and belittling you can hear when your side has just lost.

My girlfriend, Jayne, is typically culpable for this. I fell victim to her comment as Sam Clucas put Swansea 3-1 up against Arsenal and I was put in a foul mood for the rest of our night out.

 We were on a trip back to her hometown of Liverpool for her grandfather’s funeral. Bernie Watkinson was a father of five, a loving husband and a lifelong Evertonian.

I had never met Bernie, but I had heard stories of his devotion to the Toffees stretching throughout his life, right up until his final days.

The day before he died, he was talking to his grandson, Michael, about Everton’s chances at Wembley as they played Tottenham Hotspur. Big Sam’s men were without a win in five.

“I’m glad he wasn’t here to see it,” Michael said at the wake, as Spurs swept Everton aside with a crushing 4-0 win.

Footballing farewell

The quiet coach we sat in on the train up to Liverpool Lime Street seemed particularly apt considering what awaited us over the next few days.

The air conditioning was bitterly cold, much like the Irish Sea winds that batter the city, and the lack of voices foreshadowed the eerie silence that hung inside Bernie’s wife’s living room before the funeral cars arrived on Monday morning.

However, what set the precedent for the coming days wasn’t the cold or the quiet, it was watching what I could of the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion on my phone.

Liverpool’s chaotic 3-2 defeat, which saw two uses of the new VAR system, and also the Reds’ first home defeat in 19 games, seemed almost like a gift to a grieving Evertonian family.

‘The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon’

I met Jayne’s grandmother, and all of her aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time on Sunday afternoon, in the same room that we would all reconvene in again the day after for the funeral. Hardly the best circumstances to meet an entire extended family.

You could sense the expectation for tomorrow; as though the emotion of what was to follow was already in the room just waiting to come out.

Despite the lingering sadness, the television shone a bright green as Manchester City played Cardiff, also in the Cup. City’s sharp baby blue cut through a room made grey by the cloudy weather, and what amazed me the most was that it wasn’t just ‘on’.

Everyone was watching it, and all had an opinion on it, whether it was the ridiculousness of the Noisy Neighbours’ Middle Eastern funding, or the selective use of VAR.

Most prominent in conversation was Liverpool’s defeat the day before, with one member of the family getting an absolute battering from everyone else, being the sole Liverpool supporter.

The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon.

It was incredible to see how football became a safe haven for 15 or so distraught family members, and it was a big two fingers to the people who say it doesn’t matter.

The following morning, the tears that held back on Sunday began to fall and football’s safe haven shifted in to being an avenue of remembrance.

The flowers, carried through the rain to the cars, were blue and white and would later lie around the Dixie Dean statue outside Goodison Park. Small touches throughout the day reflected Everton’s stature in Bernie’s life.

Anywhere but Anfield

Bernie’s wife, Bettie, was adamant that the trip to the crematorium mustn’t pass Anfield, though she organised that the cars would drive around Goodison Park before moving on.

To close the service, the celebrant finished with the words “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum”, the club motto. Balloons were released to the theme of the TV series Z-Cars, the same music that the players walk out to before each home game.

Despite the Evertonian focus, and Bettie’s desire to stay away from Anfield, avoiding Liverpool FC would always be a hard task. The crematorium’s main gate faced onto Stanley Park. Jutting out over the horizon stood Anfield’s Main Stand and Anfield Road Stand, imposing itself over the surrounding area.

Liverpool’s illustrious and, in 1989, tragic history as a football club means that they are the most renowned club in the north west. Everton remain firmly in the shadow of their neighbours.

Anfield being in the backdrop to his funeral service seemed to represent the club being in the backdrop to Bernie’s life as an Everton supporter; never in full focus, but too hard to ignore.

After the wake, where alcohol became the family’s ‘safe haven’, I thought that my time soaking up the Evertonian lifestyle had come to an end. However, Jayne’s father Chris mentioned that he could get tickets for Everton’s game against Leicester City on Wednesday night.

One last win for Bernie

I had to go, not only as a football supporter, but as a way to pay my own respects to Bernie. Despite never meeting him, he shared my passion for the sport.

Before going through the turnstiles that I had passed just two days before on the way to the crematorium, we went to the Dixie Dean statue. Bernie’s flowers were sat to Dixie Dean’s left, resting alongside the flowers of other late Evertonians. Chris took a picture for the rest of the family to see, and then we made the walk around the ground to the Bullens Road Stand.

Our tickets were in the Lower Bullens, tucked away at the back, shielded from the dreadful wind and rain that lashed down on those in the Paddock Stand in front of us.

‘Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game” ‘

The seats were fitted after the 1990 Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster demanded all-seater stadia. They were close together and wooden. Supporting beams holding up the Upper Bullens Stand stood in front of us, blocking small strips of the pitch. Fortunately, the blocked parts of the pitch weren’t in front of the goals.

Everton’s form, without a win since beating Swansea 3-1 in mid-December, meant that Sam Allardyce’s promising start seemed to be fading and the pressure was starting to mount on the former England manager. 

Despite a nervous start, Big Sam’s side took the lead though January signing Theo Walcott, who would score again 15 minutes later, providing a man-of-the-match performance in his second game for his new club.

The return of Seamus Coleman for the first time in 10 months would have felt like a new signing for Allardyce, with Everton having struggled for much of the season without their two most experienced full-backs, Coleman and Leighton Baines. 

The victory helped to end my four days on Merseyside on a lighter note. A victory with Bernie’s flowers still outside the ground is the send-off any football fan would want after they’ve gone.

On top of that, with Walcott being an ex-Gunner, it felt like I did my bit to help his club kick on from what had been a disappointing Christmas period.

After spending time in a city that has given so much more than just money to the game of football, and with a family that had been immersed in it for so long, it was gratifying to see just how revered it still is in people’s lives.

Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game”.

Five footballers who went on to strange second careers

Former Liverpool and French international striker Djibril Cisse recently announced his retirement from professional football.

The decision, he explained, was in part due to failing to earn a contract at Auxerre but also so that he could put his “mind, body and soul” into DJing, alongside working as a producer, pundit and producing his own clothing line.

The 35-year-old, who scored 19 goals for Liverpool in two seasons and earned more than 40 caps for France, surprised many with his desire to be a DJ, but he isn’t the only professional footballer to follow an intriguing career path after his playing days. Since so many coming out of the game go down the roads of managing, coaching or punditry, it is always interesting to watch former stars who do something entirely different.

Here are five of the most unlikely post-football career choices.

5) Dion Dublin – Host of Homes under the Hammer and inventor

dion

Dion Dublin was one of the big names in Midlands football during the early days of the Premier League, playing 145 games for Coventry City from 1994 to 1998 and 155 games for Aston Villa from 1999 to 2004, where he scored 48 goals in the most successful spell of his playing career.

He also had a brief stint at Manchester United, which was ruined by a broken leg, and won four caps for England in 1998.

Since retiring from football in 2008 after two years with Norwich, Dublin, now aged 47, has dabbled in the world of inventing, creating a musical instrument; a type of Cajon (a box-shaped percussion instrument played by slapping the front and rear faces) that he called ‘the dube’.

Aside from creative exploits, he has taken the well-trodden ex-footballer route of television punditry, but also, less obviously, as a presenter in his own right, since joining Lucy Alexander and Martin Roberts as a presenter of the popular daytime property show Homes under the Hammer in 2015

Upon being selected for the role, Dublin retorted: “When they offered it to me I was overjoyed. The only shorter phone call I had was when United signed me from Cambridge.”

4) Tim Wiese – WWE wrestler

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 15: Tim Wiese celebrates with The Usos during WWE Live 2014 at Festhalle on November 15, 2014 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Tim Wiese was an experienced goalkeeper, spending 13 seasons, from 2001 to 2014, in the top flight of German football, playing for both Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen.

However, heavy competition from the likes of Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Manuel Neuer meant he won just six caps for the national team, and after retiring from football in 2014 aged 33, Wiese traded in the football for weights, pursuing a career in bodybuilding.

It was this that led to his most recent unexpected career path – as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the world’s most high-profile wrestling organisation.

In 2015, Wiese took up an offer and began training for his new role. After receiving a personal invitation from Triple H (a former world champion, now WWE’s CEO) Weise was sent to WWE’s training facility in Florida and shortly afterwards, made his in-ring debut on WWE’s European tour in Munich, teaming up with the RAW Tag Team Champions Sheamus and Cesaro to defeat The Shining Stars and Bo Dallas.

As things stand, Wiese is yet to make his debut either in NXT or on the main roster (comprising of RAW on Monday night and SmackDown on Tuesday), and remains in full-time training.

3) Jerzy Dudek – Racing car driver

dudek

Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek was Liverpool’s number one between 2001 and 2005, and wrote his name in club folklore with his performance in the penalty shoot-out win over AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.

He made 127 for the Reds appearances and won 60 caps for his country, seeing out the final years of his career as back-up to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid.  Following his retirement in 2011, Dudek opted for a new career behind the wheel of a racing car, and in 2014 completed his first full season in the Volkswagen Castrol Cup.

Interestingly, Dudek claims the two sports are very similar, telling FourFourTwo magazine: “My position in goal is about making quick decisions during the game.

“When you are racing in the car, you have to do the same, especially when you have to defend or attack, and control the car. This has helped me keep my focus and concentration, and maintain my physical ability to be a good driver.”

2) John Carew – Actor

hovdinger

John Carew remains one of the most prolific Norwegian footballers of all time, scoring 24 goals for his national side in 91 appearances.

He made his mark in European football in spells with clubs including Valencia, Roma, Lyon and Besiktas, but is best known to English fans for his four seasons with Aston Villa from 2007-2011, during which time he made 113 appearances notching 37 goals.

After being released following an unspectacular spell at West Ham in 2012, Carew has pursued a professional acting career, starring in 2015 gangster movie Hovdinger in which he played the character Ivan.

Carew told VGTV: “‘It’s a fun and interesting role. I would compare myself with Will Smith and “The Rock” perhaps.”

1) Arjan De Zeeuw – Police detective

de-zeeuw

Few ex-footballers have taken quite such an unlikely career path as former Barnsley, Wigan and Portsmouth defender Arjan De Zeeuw.

The centre back spent 17 years in English football, and was part of the Barnsley squad who reached the Premier League for the first time in their history in 1997, was named Portsmouth’s player of the Year in 2004, captained Wigan in the Carling Cup final 2006 and most bizarrely was named one of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s favourite footballers.

Despite the high regard in which he was held in English football, the Dutchman never earned an international call-up, and following his retirement in 2009 at the age of 39, he returned home to complete his training as a doctor, he began work as a forensic scientist and is now a police detective based in Alkmaar.

“It was never my intention to put my feet up after playing – I like to use my brain a little bit,” De Zeeuw told BBC Sport, adding that after playing football, he needed to ‘look at the world a bit more’, and that he liked the idea of justice and of trying to make the world a better and more equal place.

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

Contact

Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

willock-city
Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

willock-anfield
The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

chris-willock-home-debut
Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

Time for more clubs to take the FA Cup seriously again

Weakened teams, poor attendances, crazy kick-off times – all featured in the FA Cup third round earlier this month, and threaten to dent its status and traditions once again as we head into the fourth round. 

Perhaps this weekend’s ties will see more clubs deciding to take football’s oldest knockout competition a bit more seriously?

Yet the temptation is clearly there for many managers to rotate, giving fringe players a chance to show what they can do, and saving their stars from fatigue and injuries, whilst keeping their main focus on maintaining their league position.

This weekend presents opportunities for Brentford, Wolves, Wigan and Wycombe to produce major upsets as they face Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs respectively.

Championship side Wolves look to have a decent chance against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp fielded a vastly changed team at home against Plymouth in the third round and paid the price as the League Two outfit earned themselves a replay, which they only lost 1-0.

Clear sign

Brentford will also be looking to spring a surprise against the Premier League’s pace-setters, and their players will be fired up to do well at Stamford Bridge.

Like Wolves, the Bees occupy the relative safety of mid-table, so if we don’t see anything from them apart from first-choice XIs giving 100% commitment to win their ties then it really will be a clear sign that the FA Cup is no longer what it was it was.

“Howe’s caution was understandable to some extent, but what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?”

Bournemouth did their best in the last round to prove this, making 11 changes for their trip to Millwall and failing to even register a shot on target as they went down 3-0 to the League One team.

With the Cherries not threatened by relegation from the top flight, boss Eddie Howe was widely criticised for not given the Cup his best shot. Surely it was worth taking a risk?

Howe admitted: “In hindsight with the result, yes, but though I haven’t been forced, my hands are tied a little bit. We are so stretched, the Premier League is such a demanding league, we feel we need our best players available for selection.”

Mediocre

His caution was, therefore, understandable to some extent. But what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?

Bournemouth have Jack Wilshere on loan from Arsenal for the season; why not use his abilities whilst you have him to push for success in the Cup?

Despite all the criticism Bournemouth received, it is a given that this weekend we will see another top-flight team make a similar amount of changes.

Perhaps it will lead to another upset. But what fans of smaller clubs really want to see is their team beating the best an opponent has to offer, not a mediocre second XI whose names are all greeted with a derisory ‘Who?’ when the line-ups are announced.

Maybe the FA should start handing out fines for clubs who make wholesale changes for Cup ties, though this would be tricky to regulate and enforce. Perhaps the prize money on offer should be boosted? It’s currently dwarfed by the riches available in the Premier League – even for finishing bottom of the table.

Financial benefits

But if the big clubs (or any club for that matter) want to field weakened teams in the Cup, they can, so perhaps when it happens the smaller ones should really go for it?

“Will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?”

Of course, no-one can blame Plymouth for seeing a draw at Anfield as the best-possible outcome; half the gate money, plus a full house and the TV cameras at Home Park for the replay. That’s serious money for a League Two club who flirted with going out of business not so long ago.

But part of me still thinks even the likes of Argyle could, in the circumstances, have really taken the game to Liverpool’s assortment of fringe players and kids.

Yes, they earned around £1m from the two ties, but it would have been good to see them muster more than a single shot on target at Anfield to add their admirable defensive display.

Plain unlucky

In the replay, an early goal from Lucas forced Plymouth to start playing, and start playing is exactly what they did, taking the game to the Reds and coming within inches of a stunning equaliser from Jake Jervis with a 12-yard scissor-kick.

Okay, so they still didn’t manage many attempts on goal, but still a lot more than they did at Anfield, where an inexperienced Liverpool side were there for the taking.

Again I don’t want to criticise them too much, and others will argue that they got their tactics spot on because Liverpool do struggle against defensive outfits as we’ve seen in the Premier League. At the end of the day, maybe they were just plain unlucky to lose out.

But let’s hope we see more clubs taking the FA Cup seriously this weekend. If they don’t, the ‘shock’ results will keep coming. But will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?

‘I’m certainly not going to call for Wenger to go’

Ranked amongst the top 10 stand-ups in Britain by The Independent, comedian Ian Stone has flourished to become one of the most talented topical acts in the country.

Currently presenting ‘The Football’s On’ for BT Sport, the north Londoner is a regular on shows like Mock the Week but his lifelong passion is Arsenal. Elephant Sport spoke to him about the highs and lows of being a Gooner, Arsene Wenger and much more.

How did you feel about the last weekend’s north London derby?  

Stone with Arsenal legend Brady

It was a fair result. They have some decent attacking players, they hit the post and I thought they played alright particularly in the first half an hour so 1-1 is probably fair.

We were kind of flat but we haven’t been brilliant in most games this season to be honest. We are muddling through.

It’s not the best but we are in it so I’ll take that.

Where do you think Arsenal will finish come the end of the season?

Genuinely – I’ve no idea. We could win it or we could finish third. The race will be between Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and us.

It will be tight. I would like us to be running away with the league but that’s not going to happen so I enjoy the big games.

Anyone can win it, even Spurs – I hate them but they’re a decent team. They have a good squad but ours is better.

Not having European football will benefit Liverpool and Chelsea but none of the teams are defensively good, apart from Spurs, so that’s why I think they are a threat.

Growing up what was the best thing you witnessed as an Arsenal fan? 

That’s not an easy question. But if you’re talking about the school years, then seeing Liam Brady for the first time and going ‘wow the way he plays is just beautiful’. I loved him and I still do.

How did you first become interested in Arsenal?

My dad. He just took me to Highbury and I thought ‘yeah this is it, I love this place’. That’s what happens to most of us, isn’t it?

Favourite all-time Arsenal player and why?

Hard to pick one. Brady first, I loved him, and Pat Jennings too. When it was a one on one with the keeper and Jennings was in goal, you thought they were never going to beat him. Tony Adams, because he loved the club as much as I do and Ian Wright for the same reason.

Dennis Bergkamp because he’s probably the best footballer I have ever seen, Thierry Henry because he’s a close second. There’s many, but those players are great players and they loved the club, and as a fan that’s what you want really.

Dennis Bergkamp was a great but comparisons have been made between Mesut Ozil and him – what is your opinion of the German?

Ozil. That goal against Ludogorets. I could watch that goal a million times and I wouldn’t get bored. That second dummy… the bloke is a genius and unlike any footballer I have ever seen. He has a lovely style about him.

When he first arrived, I was a bit disappointed. There were some moments but he didn’t really impose himself in games and you thought ‘you really could win this game on your own if you could be bothered’ but now he’s bulked up a bit and he’s scoring goals.

He’s an outstanding footballer and I’m glad we’ve got him. I love watching him.

Away at Villa last season, he brought the ball down right in front of me and you just thought ‘how did he even do that’?  That’s what I love about Ozil. He makes the incredibly difficult look incredibly easy.

Favourite current Arsenal player and why?

Alexis Sanchez. He just loves the game and he loves to play. Alexis is a great footballer. I’m so glad we have got him as it’s a pleasure to watch players like that.

Arsene Wenger is into his 20th season at Arsenal but what is your take on the boss?

Last season I was fed up, we had a great opportunity to win the title, and for all the romance of Leicester winning, we blew it and I blamed Wenger.

Sometimes when he’s signed players like Igor Stepanovs and Marouane Chamakh, I’ve sat there thinking ‘what on earth are you doing?’, but what can you say about the boss?

He creates beautiful football teams and will be remembered long after we’ve all gone as someone who created a style of football. He’s made some mistakes but we all have. He’ll go when he wants to go. I’m certainly not going to call for him to go.

What I would love more than anything is for him to win the Champions League and sign off with that. He deserves it but you know his legacy.

We all sit in the most beautiful of stadiums and that’s all down to him so I have the most positive of feelings towards him.

I’ve not had a 20-year relationship with anyone who hasn’t pissed me off though!

Who would you get as his replacement when he decides to leave?

I wanted Jurgen Klopp but he’s at the right club at Liverpool, they suit him. Anytime we ever talk about a possible replacement, it all goes wrong for them.

Ronald Koeman is a very good manager and we will see what happens despite losing 5-0 to Chelsea on the weekend!

There’s been talk of Diego Simeone but I don’t think he’s right for Arsenal. He needs the fans onside and I think our fans are a little bit different.

We can be aroused but I don’t think we are right for Simeone. We’ll see what happens but I don’t think Arsene is going away for a while yet.

Best goal you have ever witnessed as an Arsenal fan?

Against Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League game at Highbury. Robert Pires was penned in in the corner by three defenders but somehow managed to play a 40-yard pass to Dennis Bergkamp in the centre of the pitch.

He killed it, exchanged passes with Patrick Vieira and he’s away. Bergkamp plays the ball inside the full back to Sylvain Wiltord, who lays it across to Thierry Henry, who’s sprinted 80-yards to side-foot it in.

From one end of the pitch to the other in six seconds – it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve seen Arsenal ever do.

Worst moment as an Arsenal fan?

Losing the Champions League final to Barcelona was bad – I enjoyed the trip to Paris but not the game. Losing the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray on penalties was awful.

In the 1980 season, I went to 60 games out of 68, and we lost to West Ham in the FA Cup final, then Valencia in the Cup Winners Cup final and somehow managed to get hammered by Middlesbrough 5-0. That was pretty grim.

Best moment as an Arsenal fan?

Beating Barcelona at the Emirates a few years ago was pretty awesome, and Thierry Henry scoring on his comeback against Leeds United in the FA Cup was special too. I interviewed him for a radio thing and he loved talking about that moment.

How impressed have you been with Alexis Sanchez up front this season?

It’s working. I like the fact that there’s movement when Sanchez is up front. Olivier Giroud is a great sub and you can bring him on and play him in a two but I like the mobility of the team when Sanchez plays.

What have you made of the summer signings of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka?

Excellent. Two very good signings. We needed spine – we’ve got it now.

How do you feel about the progress that Laurent Koscielny has made over the years to become one of the world’s best defenders? 

I think most people realise how good Koscielny is. He’s got better as quite often defenders do so I’m pleased for him and he enjoys being at the club so let him stay as long as he wants!

Which player that left the club hurt you the most?

It killed me losing Patrick Vieira but he wanted to go. I remember him coming on as an 18 year old against Sheffield Wednesday – we were losing and he turned the game. He was a stunning footballer and a fighter and I loved him and Emmanuel Petit together.

How do you see Arsenal fairing throughout the season and could this be Wenger’s final season?

I think if he wins the Premier League or Champions League, I think he will stay. We can win the league but will we? If we get lucky with injuries, we will be there come May, but it’s very tight. Our position in the league is good at the moment – let’s see.

Lastly, how do you feel Arsenal will fair against Manchester United after the international break?

I want to beat them so badly. I’ve not seen Arsenal win many games at Old Trafford but I went to the FA Cup game there when we won 2-1 with Danny Welbeck scoring, and it was absolutely wicked – 9,000 of us there on a Monday night.

What I loved was weeks later, reading that the players had been so happy with the support and the difference it had made. That means a lot to the fans. I love winning at Old Trafford, so hopefully we will.

I’d love us to have a run in the Champions League too. I want us to finish first in the group and give ourselves a chance because if we do that, the second leg of the next round will be at home and that’s huge.

It’s a long time since we went far in Europe and if we got to the semis and do well in the League, Ozil and Sanchez will stay and we can continue to improve. We’re doing all right at the moment, I’m enjoying it so let’s continue!

Follow Ian Stone on Twitter @iandstone