Empty stands and absent stars a sign of FA Cup’s slow demise

Derby County's Scottish striker Chris Martin (R) shoots and scores past Crystal Palace's English defender Martin Kelly during the English FA Cup third round football match between Crystal Palace and Derby County at Selhurst Park in south London on January 5, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2020

Empty stands and absent stars a sign of FA Cup’s slow demise

  • The 24 Championship sides made 171 alterations to their starting lineups

LONDON: The FA Cup third round used to have pride of place among the showpiece dates of the English football calendar, but a weekend of empty stands and much-changed teams showed there appears to be little romance left for the cup.

After a grueling festive fixture schedule saw four rounds of Premier League games crammed into 13 days either side of Christmas and New Year, managers from the 20 top flight teams made a combined 136 changes.

Crystal Palace, Brighton and Aston Villa were the only Premier League sides to pay the penalty for resting first-team regulars against Championship opposition with even many of the sides further down the pyramid taking the chance to rotate.

The 24 Championship sides made 171 alterations to their starting lineups.

Many fans also took the opportunity for a weekend break from football with attendances for Premier League and Championship clubs down over 150,000 on their previous home matches.

Cardiff narrowly avoided their lowest ever attendance since moving to the 33,000- capacity Cardiff City Stadium over a decade ago.

Just 5,828 saw Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Carlisle with only one of the four stands even opened.

“I think the amount of fixtures in the schedule over this period makes it very difficult for supporters to support every single game,” said Cardiff manager Neil Harris.

He was not alone in calling for a change to the schedule if the cup is to be revived.

After a gruelling December in which his side played nine games across four different competitions, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp made nine changes as the youthful Reds still inflicted more Merseyside derby pain on Everton with a 1-0 win at Anfield.

“Two players started the last game, one of them got injured,” said Klopp after James Milner limped off inside 10 minutes. “That’s the situation we are in, that’s why a lot of managers make a lot of changes. It’s nothing to do with the cup, it’s the timing.”

However, others believe more radical changes are needed to the format to halt the FA Cup’s decline.

Replays have already been abolished from the fifth round, but Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo said he would have preferred a penalty shootout than another go at Manchester United after a 0-0 draw at Molineux.

From this season the fifth round has also been moved to a midweek to allow a Premier League winter break for the first time over two weekends in February.

The Premier League taking priority and people’s attention has been a recurring theme of the FA Cup’s dwindling attraction.

“You never used to see many changes in the third round but the introduction, rise and growth of the Premier League means that’s by far the biggest competition in this country,” said Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, who made 11 changes for his side’s 2-1 win over non-league Fylde.

Yet, just months after Bury went to the wall after over 100 years in the Football League, there are fears that changes such as removing replays completely may sound the death knell for more lower league clubs who rely on the financial bounty of a big name draw.

“I remember playing Burton away in 2005,” said Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “That went to a replay at Old Trafford. We beat them 5-0 but it was a great day out for them.

“It’s a debate we can have but it is not just about the top teams having too many games. It is about romance.”


Record-breaking Lukaku propelling Inter’s European dream

Updated 12 August 2020

Record-breaking Lukaku propelling Inter’s European dream

  • Inter reach their first European semifinal since 2010 when they went on to win the Champions League

MILAN: A record-breaking Romelu Lukaku is leading Inter Milan's chase for their first trophy in 9 years.

Eyebrows were raised last year when Inter shelled out a club record of around €65 million ($73 million) plus €13 million  ($15 million) in bonuses for Lukaku, who had had a disappointing final season at Manchester United.

However, Lukaku swiftly developed a scintillating partnership with Lautaro Martínez and their goals helped Inter sustain a title challenge before eventually finishing second in Serie A, a point behind Juventus.

Inter scored 81 league goals — well above the paltry 57 they managed in the previous campaign.

Lukaku scored again on Monday and set up another to help Inter beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 to reach the Europa League semifinals.

“Romelu has never played so well, not even in the past,” Inter coach Antonio Conte said.

The Belgian forward became the first player to find the net in nine consecutive Europa League games, surpassing the eight set by Alan Shearer for Newcastle in 2005.

Lukaku’s 31st goal of the season took him past the 30-mark for the first time in his career.

“I’ve always wanted to win, ever since I was little,” Lukaku said. “I’ve always said that I will give my all for this team.

“We’re a great team; my teammates help me a lot, otherwise I couldn’t do these things and achieve these numbers ... my teammates look for me. We’re doing well together, all of us.”

Inter reached their first European semifinal since 2010 when they went on to win the Champions League as well as Serie A and the Italian Cup to complete a historic treble.

They retained the Italian Cup the following year but have not managed to lift silverware since.

The Nerazzurri play Shakhtar Donetsk or Basel in the semifinals on Monday.

After an intense period of playing matches approximately every three days after soccer restarted following the pandemic-enforced shutdown, Conte has almost a week to prepare his players.

He will want to make sure they understand that profligacy can prove costly at this level.

Inter have often failed to kill off games in which they have  dominated, and that was again the case on Monday when they had opportunities to extend their advantage.

That allowed Leverkusen to stay in the quarterfinal despite having only two shots on target.

“We could have gone through in a more relaxed manner because, despite the fact that we never really had to dig in, the result was close,” Conte said.

“It’s difficult to be annoyed. I can only compliment the lads on their performance. As is the case after every game, we’ll analyze every situation and see where we can improve.”