Serie A has now shut down for its winter break, but football is slowly ramping up again elsewhere across Europe. Meanwhile, the action plods relentlessly on in England: this week saw plenty of league and FA Cup activity.
Two years of injury hell. Eleven operations. Warnings that he would be lucky to walk again. It is a miracle that Santi Cazorla is still playing football, never mind scoring a brace to secure a draw against Real Madrid. However, that is exactly what he did for Villarreal. He returned to his boyhood club in the summer; these were his first two goals back with The Yellow Submarine, and they were enough to sink Real’s chances of victory. He opened the scoring with a typically classy finish after just four minutes – Varane and Benzema turned things around for the visitors, but with less than ten minutes to go Cazorla popped up in the box again to earn his side a point against the European champions.
Cazorla of course spent much of his prime at Arsenal, and his former club breathed a sigh of relief this week as their status as the only Premier League side to complete an ‘Invincibles’ season remained intact for another year. Liverpool were finally thwarted at the 21st attempt – it was Manchester City who managed to inflict defeat on Klopp’s men, closing the gap at the top to four points in the process. Sergio Aguero extended his remarkable scoring run against Liverpool at the Etihad; Roberto Firmino responded by finishing off a fine team move to equalise, but Leroy Sane struck with twenty minutes to play to give City a hard-earned win. This result keeps the title race well and truly alive.
The result also saw Tottenham drop to third, but they didn’t have to wait long to vent their frustration. Tranmere Rovers were the unlucky opponents – the League 2 side were no match for a very strong Spurs team, who despite being thwarted for forty minutes at Prenton Park ended up running out 7-0 winners. An Aurier brace and a Llorente hattrick may have given Pochettino pause for thought before his next selection; two of the more regular starters in the shape of Son Heung- Min and Harry Kane also found the net. Tranmere’s attentions now turn to the league, where they are looking to sustain an impressive push for the playoffs – this represents quite the resurgence for a team who only re-entered the Football League this season.
Cesc Fabregas made his name in English football with Spurs’ North London rivals, but he has plied his trade for Chelsea since his return to the country from Barcelona in 2014. His appearances have been limited in the past year or so, and he has been heavily linked with a January reunion with former Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry at Monaco. Maurizio Sarri handed him what is likely to be a farewell appearance in the FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest. The sentimentality looked as though it could cost Chelsea when Fabregas missed a first-half penalty, but the quality of the
Premier League side eventually shone through – Fabregas’ compatriot Alvaro Morata netted a much- needed brace to secure a 2-0 win. Fabregas was afforded a standing ovation when he was withdrawn in the 85th minute; he leaves with over 500 appearances in English football, and with the status of one of the great passers of the Premier League era.
Not every team was able to avoid an upset with the same ease as Chelsea. One of the most impressive victories of the third round came from Barnet, who are now the final non-league side left in the competition. They earned an away win at high-flying Sheffield United, who currently sit third in the Championship. This equates to a gap of 84 league places between the two teams; this did not faze James Coulthirst as he stepped up to convert his penalty, which was ultimately the only goal of the game. A penalty also proved decisive for Newport County: the Welsh side took the Premier League scalp of Leicester City. It looked like it might be late heartbreak for the League Two outfit when Ghezzal made it 1-1 in the 82 nd minute, but just three minutes later the referee was pointing to the spot for a Newport penalty. Padraig Amond, a journeyman Irish striker who has previously enjoyed a surprising stint with Pacos de Ferreira, made no mistake from twelve yards.
While Barnet were in FA Cup action, the rest of the National League continued as usual. It produced an astonishing game: Chesterfield vs Ebbsfleet may not have been treated to the same billing as the cup ties, but it fully delivered on drama. The home side found themselves three goals down after just forty-five minutes – all looked lost for the side fighting for survival in the English fifth tier. However, a remarkable fightback saw Will Evans make it 3-3 in the 95th minute. The action was not yet over; it looked as though all Chesterfield’s efforts were to be for naught when their goalkeeper conceded a penalty just a minute later. He was also sent off for the infringement. Who stepped up to take his place and face the penalty? None other than Will Evans, who had brought Chesterfield level at the other end just moments earlier. He then completed the frankly implausible feat of saving the spot kick – if Chesterfield’s survival comes down to a point at the end of the season, they will know who to thank.
League football is not quite back underway in France, but there were French Cup fixtures this week. Much like the FA Cup, this gives players from smaller clubs a chance to impress on the big stage. One man who took that chance already has an advantage in his quest to become a household name: his name happens to be Kevin Le Sauce. This isn’t one that people will forget in a hurry – his goal for fifth-tier Le Pontivy against Guingamp will not harm his case either. The strike temporarily brought things level at 2-2, but Guingamp added another two goals and the minnows couldn’t ketchup… erm, catch up. Le Sauce will at least be hoping to have impressed some bigger clubs: Dijon, perhaps?