In some ways, Pep Guardiola might feel he cannot win. The development of Phil Foden has become the cause celebre of English football, largely because the England national team is missing a pure midfield creator and Foden seems to fit the bill.
Guardiola has an impossible balance. He might well love to pick Foden to start in the Premier League but he also has senior options and is in the midst of a title race that will be decided by thin margins. Young players inevitably make more mistakes than senior players — that is part of their development. But Guardiola also knows that one mistake could make a huge difference. This is the difficulty facing any young player at an elite club.
But all Foden can do is prove his worth when he does get those fleeting chances to start competitive matches. Saturday saw the 11th start of his club career, but he was easily the best player on the Rodney Parade pitch. If the fervent atmosphere of an FA Cup tie in unfamiliar surroundings and on a bumpy pitch could have knocked Foden off his stride, he came through this test with flying colours. Now for a first Premier League start.
When one of Chelsea and Manchester United are knocked out of the FA Cup on Monday evening, it will leave Watford as the fourth highest-ranked team left in the competition at the quarter-finals stage. Javi Gracia’s side have landed on their feet. A potential shot at glory has fallen into their laps.
If that sounds a little uncharitable to Watford, look at the evidence. Gracia’s side have been drawn away three times, but to non-league Woking, a Newcastle United outfit that had no interest in cup progression and a QPR team in wretched form in the Championship. One more gentle draw and Watford will be at Wembley.
Nor too can Gracia claim that he has prioritised the cup competitions. Watford have played five domestic cup matches this season, and Gracia has made 48 out of a possible 55 changes to his starting XIs from the previous league match. Their progression rather sums up the competition for places at Vicarage Road.
But now Gracia should change his strategy. With Watford safely ensconced in Premier League mid-table, now is the chance to win the first major trophy in the club’s history. They have a shot at Watford immortality.
The build-up to Newport County’s tie against Manchester City sold them as a team of part-timers, butchers and bakers who had somehow risen way above their footballing station.
News reports spoke to townsfolk to discover how they would mark this special day. A reminder, them, that Newport do still have a fair shot at promotion to League One this season.
But then such coverage did not feel inappropriate or patronising. The vast inequalities between the two clubs meant Newport were fairly cast in the role of relative nobody. Guardiola made plenty of changes to his team, but Manchester City’s starting XI did still cost over £300m (€343.1m) in transfer fees alone. Newport’s? Just the £50,000 (€57,190).
A 4-1 defeat can hardly be sold as mighty achievement, but Newport really do deserve credit for their performance. When Pádraig Amond scored in the 89th minute to keep up his record of scoring in every FA Cup round this season, a wave of FA Cup magic passed over Rodney Parade. It was very quickly extinguished, but that’s not the point. Newport came to do themselves proud; do themselves proud they did. They will still talk of this cup run in 20 years’ time. Memories have been made.
Chris Hughton could easily have sacrificed FA Cup participation, given Brighton’s miserable Premier League form. They have taken six points from a possible 33, a run that has seen the Seagulls slide from midtable comfort to relegation contenders. Hughton did indeed made eight changes, but three of those (Glenn Murray, Lewis Dunk and Davy Propper) were enforced. Most encouraging was the manner in which those who did step into the breach demonstrated fight, heart and no little quality, albeit against Championship opposition.
Hughton will hope that cup success can provide a shot in the arm to Brighton’s league form. Winning the FA Cup would be a magical experience, one that many supporters might prefer to relegation survival. Brighton’s hierarchy might have a different, long-termist view. Hughton, one of life’s eternal optimists, will point out that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
Derby County managers get sacked for failing to earn promotion. This club has not finished outside the top nine in the Championship since 2013 and yet Frank Lampard is the sixth permanent manager in that time. That makes the expectation for each new coach pretty clear.
So while an FA Cup run was pleasant enough, Lampard has work to do. Derby have only taken 14 points from their last 10 Championship matches, and Lampard spent £15m on permanent signings and brought in Harry Wilson, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Andy King on loan. Being seventh in the table, given the investment, is at best satisfactory.
With 15 league games left promotion is hardly unthinkable, although an automatic place surely is. Lampard must hope his team have got over their slump. Dropping down the table in late season has not ended well for his predecessors.