- Pogba looks irreplaceable, even in a United win
In one sense, Manchester United did not miss Paul Pogba. They lost their last two away games without the £89 million man in the starting 11. Without the ill Frenchman, they won 2-0 at Huddersfield. Minus their biggest buy, the expensive Romelu Lukaku took on the mantle of match-winner. Lacking Pogba’s tendency to roam out of position, a disciplined, defensive trio of Nemanja Matic, Michael Carrick and Scott McTominay were not pulled out of shape.
In another way, however, they illustrated just how hard Pogba is to replace, whether for one game or, if rumours of Real Madrid’s interest are to be believed, on a longer-term basis, and not just because Carrick is due to retire in the summer.
United’s midfield three barely got forward. They had no-one of Pogba’s skill, pace or attacking intent. They had problems on the left, with Alexis Sanchez’s reluctance to track back to mark Florent Hadergjonaj meaning that Matic spent the second-half essentially as a wide midfielder. No-one in the United squad comes close to duplicating Pogba’s attributes. And that helps explain why he commanded that £89 million fee in the first place.
2. Spurs get a gem in Lucas Moura.
If Paris Saint-Germain reshaped the transfer market with the colossal prices they are paying for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, they also offered opportunities for predatory clubs. Their need to offload players and try and pass Financial Fair Play means there are bargains to be had in the French capital. If it is a moot point if Spurs found one in the erratic Serge Aurier, Lucas Moura’s full debut suggests he is a far more astute acquisition.
AS IT HAPPENED: Rochdale vs Tottenham
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The £23 million Brazilian did not merely pass a test of character, showing the urgency and industry too many of his team-mates lacked at Rochdale; he also brought quality, and not just in the goal he scored on his full start to help them earn a replay.
His raw pace suggests he will give Tottenham another option. His trickery indicates that defenders must be wary of him. On a day when too few of Spurs’ squad players – the unimpressive Fernando Llorente, in particular – excelled and when Mauricio Pochettino had to send for Harry Kane and Dele Alli against League One’s bottom side, there was nonetheless an indication that they have added quality in the electric winger.
3. Giroud shows Chelsea’s January business could be wise
The game was already over, Chelsea’s place in the quarter-finals booked long before the half-time whistle. Yet their fourth goal against Hull may well have been the most significant. Emerson Palmieri was the instigator, with a foray down the left and a low cross. Olivier Giroud was the executioner, a delicate flick beating David Marshall.
It was the Frenchman’s first goal for Chelsea, but not the first he played a part in. There was Eden Hazard’s Monday opener against West Bromwich Albion, for starters. Earlier against Hull, there was a fine piece of hold-up play to allow Cesc Fabregas to release Pedro and a neat lay-off when Willian scored his second.
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They are all illustrations of why Conte wanted a target man, a “point of reference”, as he terms it, in attack. Giroud has begun in impressive fashion, bringing others into play with his intelligence. An early goal was important, too, given the departed Michy Batshuayi has made a prolific beginning to life at Borussia Dortmund. And the debutant Palmieri’s contribution was useful, too: while Davide Zappacosta has deputised, they have lacked a natural back-up to Marcos Alonso at left wing-back. For all Conte’s complaints about Chelsea’s transfer business, they may have secured two valuable squad players in January.
4. Mahrez returns to give Leicester hope of more silverware.
In one respect, Riyad Mahrez’s comeback was an inauspicious affair. He returned to the Leicester fold against the team he could have joined and was given an illustration of what he was missing, as Manchester City ran riot in last week’s 5-1 win. His first start since his failed attempt to leave the King Power Stadium at the end of the transfer window bode altogether better.
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The catalysts for Leicester’s title-winning exploits combined again, Mahrez supplying Jamie Vardy’s winner against Sheffield United, to offer the hope that the Algerian will bring a second piece of silverware before his probable departure. “The most important thing was to win the game, but also to see again Jamie and Riyad playing together in the same game,” said Claude Puel.
It was important, too, that both started: Leicester progressed to the last 16 with what was essentially a second-string side. Puel parachuted in his best players against the Blades. Unlike those fighting relegation, pursuing promotion, targeting a top-four place or trying to win the Champions League, Leicester can prioritise the FA Cup. And while they will be underdogs against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, Mahrez’s past is proof they can upset the favourites to secure major honours.
5. Pardew’s sorry week takes a turn for the worse.
Alan Pardew must feel increasingly alone, and not just because West Bromwich Albion are stranded adrift at the foot of the Premier League. His position feels at risk as he is losing allies. This week, Albion have sacked chairman John Williams and chief executive Martin Goodman. Pardew felt the need to demote his captain Jonny Evans to the ranks after the defender was one of four players who allegedly stole a taxi during a mid-season break in Spain. He gave the armband to Gareth McAuley in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Southampton but the 38-year-old is not a regular starter. He may be scrabbling around to find another skipper.
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Among many regrets – the loss of many games, last week’s loss of Daniel Sturridge to injury – Pardew should have another: Albion’s best performance under him came in vain. They were genuinely excellent in beating Liverpool 3-2 in the FA Cup. By getting knocked out in the next round, they ensured that it counted for nothing. They could have done with that display in the Premier League instead. And while they created chances and almost equalised against Saints, they have now conceded 13 goals in their last five games. Without Evans and co tightening up at the back, they will go down.