FRIDAY’S BIG HEADLINES

Must the FA Cup show go on?

Football has done a pretty good job thus far of pretending there isn’t a pandemic on. Quite literally in the case of the multitude of players who apparently believed that being good at kicking a ball and running enabled you to be exempt from tier four restrictions over Christmas and New Year. The Warm-Up must have missed that particular caveat in Chris Witty's press conference.
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Fake crowd noise has taken the edge off empty stadiums and only a handful of Premier League matches have been postponed up to this point. But this weekend. Well, this weekend could come to be seen as the moment when football succumbed to the ghastly reality that the rest of the country is enduring.
In the WSL, matches involving Manchester City and Arsenal have been postponed after Covid outbreaks related to Christmas trips to Dubai made by certain players. Must be nice to visit Dubai right now! When everyone else is being told to stay at home at all costs! Lovely!
And the FA Cup is in serious danger of descending into absolute farce. The wisdom of dispersing clubs from all leagues and regions across the country, while a new variant takes hold in the population, for a competition which could very easily have been skipped this season was already massively questionable. And things are just getting worse.
Southampton’s match against Shrewsbury has been postponed due to Covid cases at the League One club, but it is events at Derby and particularly Aston Villa, which are calling the integrity of the competition into question.

Klopp: 'Not likely' that Liverpool will sign a defender

It was made clear late last night that due to the Covid outbreak currently rippling through the Aston Villa first-team squad, the club will be unable to field any senior players at all for tonight’s third-round match against Liverpool. With the training ground shut and the entire senior operation isolating they have little choice. Even then, if the youth team bubble is compromised too, they will not be able to play the game at all. Test results are expected later.
“A large number of first team players and staff returned positive tests after being routinely tested on Monday and immediately went into isolation,” explained Villa in a statement. “A second round of testing was carried out immediately and produced more positive results today.”
There is no real reason football should avoid the effects of the second wave when a new variant is careering through society in seemingly unstoppable fashion. The grim truth is that over 1,000 people died yesterday. London hospitals are close to being overwhelmed. Glaring government policy errors affect all citizens and even if football has strict bubbles during work time, players aren’t being hermetically sealed off from their family members who go to the shops, or to nursery. So as cases dramatically increase in the country at large and society locks down again, football has some tough decisions to consider.
Do you continue to limp on through a competition like the FA Cup, offering up the pretence that it is a viable event in a deadly pandemic despite mounting evidence to the contrary? Or do you take a simple decision to cancel it and give everyone a bit of breathing space? It would be of such huge benefit to Premier League clubs not to have to clog up their fixture list, especially those in Europe, that adequate compensation could be given to the FA and lower-league clubs.
With the fixture backlog as it is already – not helped whatsoever by the frankly unconscionable decision to pack in the Nations League and *international friendlies* this season – clubs are already facing daunting schedules. People are going to have to get creative and fluid with logistics at some point and start playing games whenever they can, even with two different XIs two days in a row perhaps. It’s not that unthinkable: Liverpool did it in November last year to satisfy fixtures in the League Cup and Club World Cup when no one had heard of coronavirus and The Warm-Up still thought Wuhan was a New York hip hop collective.
The integrity of the league has already been compromised to an extent with some clubs allowed fans in for periods while others have not, and if predictions are correct and the situation will only worsen for another couple of weeks, the next portion of the season could become a box-ticking exercise to protect clubs’ income and just get the leagues finished. There are clear financial reasons which make this an imperative.
But you can't say the same for the FA Cup, and in such a context, it’s hard to see why it is honestly worth all the trouble. An irrelevance in a pandemic and, increasingly, a farce too, there's no good reason to go on with this.

United sign ‘one of most exciting prospects in the game’

Amad Diallo

Image credit: Getty Images

A sluggish transfer window got a little kick up the bum yesterday as Manchester United signed prodigiously talented young winger Amad Diallo from Atalanta for a fee in the region of £37m.
Diallo has only played four times in Serie A and it looks like an astronomical fee, but that only really adds to the pure excitement around a deal like this. There’s little else better than your club getting its hands on a genuine wonderkid.
“As a club, we have followed Amad for a number of years and having watched him myself, I believe he is one of the most exciting young prospects in the game,” said hype man Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “Manchester United has such a proud history of developing young players and everything is in place to enable Amad to reach his potential here.
“It will take time for him to adapt but his speed, vision and fantastic dribbling ability will stand him in good stead to make the transition. He is a player with all of the raw attributes that are needed to be an important player for Manchester United in the years to come.”

Gunners to lose Balogun?

But the wonderkid lord given, and he taketh away. According to reports coming out of, well, presumably an agent with an agenda to drive, Arsenal could lose talented young striker Folarin Balogun. It is suggested that he is close to agreeing a pre-contract deal with a big European club after growing frustrated at the amount of chances he is getting at Arsenal.
With goals against Molde and Dundalk already this season, Balogun has some leverage with Arsenal supporters and this has echoes of when it was rumoured Arsenal could be losing Bukayo Saka, only for him to sign up to a new deal. Oh, and they have the same agents. Funny that.

IN OTHER NEWS

A rare good news story amid the Covid chaos, as Chelsea once again respond to tough lockdown measures by making their hotel rooms available to NHS workers for free. Chelsea responded superbly to the first wave of the pandemic, restoring some belief in the fact that football clubs can still be community bodies, and all credit to Roman Abramovich for this.

HAT TIP

The defining motif of Neville’s coaching career to date is a series of doors being held open for him: a path that ironically enough would not exist for a woman of his equivalent talent. Still, in his inimitable capacity to keep falling into ever more lucrative jobs, Neville has demonstrated a defiance of meritocracy that will reward him well beyond football. Expect him to turn up as foreign secretary in about a decade.
Jonathan Liew is in searing form in this piece about Phil Neville’s next move in a career that seems impervious to the gravity of his lack of success.

COMING UP

Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. At the time of writing we are expecting the FA Cup match between Liverpool and Aston Villa to go ahead so join us at 7:45pm as the third round kicks off. Or potentially doesn’t.
Andi Thomas will be back on Monday to pick through the FA Cup games which actually went ahead this weekend.
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