The FA Cup quarter finals took place over the weekend, with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City booking their place in the last four at the expense of Norwich, Sheffield United Leicester and Newcastle.
It was victory all round for the visitors as United recorded a 2-1 victory at Norwich and Arsenal beat Sheffield United by the same scoreline, while Chelsea won 1-0 at Leicester and City secured a 2-0 win over Newcastle.
So what did we learn from the FA Cup quarter finals?
Last season’s FA Cup final was a painful reminder that the joyous, anything can happen narrative of English football’s oldest cup competition has largely been eroded, as Premier League champions Manchester City completely blew underdogs Watford away with a comprehensive 6-0 win.
The margins of victory were less emphatic in this season’s last eight, but the outcome was the same; the four favourites won and progressed.
Norwich put up a good fight against a United side not at their best, while Arsenal and Chelsea did actually eliminate sides who are currently a point above them in the Premier League, but the fact remains that the semi finals just consist of four of the traditionally biggest sides in England.
You know the FA Cup has lost its magic when Arsenal are considered the competition’s plucky underdogs.
When Manchester United signed 31-year-old former Watford striker Odion Ighalo on deadline day in January, people did more than scoff.
But Ighalo has proved himself to be a useful, dependable signing and netted his fifth goal since arriving at Old Trafford to open the scoring against Norwich.
It was an intelligent, improvised finish, and in finding the net Ighalo became the first United player in 95 years to score in each of his first four competitive starts for the club.
Bottom of the Premier League Norwich have stubbornly stuck to their expansive, free flowing footballing philosophy all season as they look set to head to the Championship in a blaze of excitement, glory and poor defensive shape.
They possess the Premier League’s second leakiest defence, with United beating the Canaries 7-0 on aggregate across their two top flight meetings this season.
When Timm Klose saw red on the stroke of full time, it seemed inevitable that the flood gates would open. Instead, they displayed a defensive resilience that has been absent all season, getting men behind the ball and frustrating United.
Tim Krul was required to pull off a selection of fine saves, with the tie looking to be heading for a penalty shootout before Harry Maguire struck with two minutes to spare.
Man City have impressive since football resumed, turning in sharp, polished performances, with no trace of a team that has gone three months without a competitive fixture.
Phil Foden in particular has emerged as a star performer, hitting three goals in his first two appearances and producing his most complete display yet during City’s victory over Burnley.
Having missed the midweek defeat to Chelsea, Foden was back with a bang against Newcastle, drifting in and out of pockets of space and providing the delicate flicks, tricks and touches of a seasoned Spanish midfielder, not a 20-year-old from Stockport. His razor sharp control and turn in the build up to City’s second were sublime.
Despite his youthful Chelsea side sitting fourth during his first season in charge – and playing some good football along the way – Frank Lampard’s capabilities in the dugout have often been questioned.
He’s undoubtedly an excellent man manager, but does he have a real tactical nouse? After all, this is a Chelsea side that have conceded the same number of Premier League goals as 15th place Brighton.
However, during Chelsea’s victory over Leicester, Lampard’s substitutions proved decisive for the second time in seven days. The Chelsea boss hauled off Reece James, Billy Gilmour and Mason Mount at half time, replacing the trio with Cesar Azpilicueta, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley. It paid dividends as the latter grabbed the winner.
Seven days earlier, Christian Pulisic equalised against Aston Villa just five minutes after his introduction. Lampard is showing signs of being a better tactical manager than he is given credit for.
Two of this season’s surprise packages have really suffered from football’s enforced break. Sheffield United had been right in top four contention, while Leicester were comfortably in the Champions League spots after dazzling campaigns.
However, their momentum appears to have been well and truly stunted during football’s three month absence. Both sides were yet to taste victory in the Premier League since the top flight returned in June, and that form was transferred into the FA Cup over the weekend.
James Maddison was a big miss for Leicester as the Foxes produced a below par display, while it is a real opportunity missed for Sheffield United against an Arsenal side who have largely underwhelmed this season.
While the majority of sides have picked up from where they left off before football’s suspension – with those at the top picking up points and those towards the bottom struggling – Leicester and Sheffield United have been the exception to the rule, demonstrating just how key momentum can be.