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Should Premier League clubs rest players for FA Cup?

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This weekend, FA Cup fixtures replace the usual league matchups.

In an incredible display of long-shot odds, there were eight Premier League teams and eight lower-division opponents in the draw, and not a single Premier League team was drawn against another top-flight side. The age-old question of squad rotation rears its head this weekend, and with the competition winding down, it’s a question of whether top-flight clubs rest players for the Cup and risk an embarrassing upset, or play the first-choice lineup and skip the chance for rest amid an otherwise busy time of year for teams still in the tournament.

So, let’s go chronologically through each matchup and look at the situation for each top-flight team.

Burnley vs. Lincoln City, Saturday 7:30 a.m. ET

Burnley sits in 12th place in the Premier League table, 10 points above the relegation zone and 11 points behind the final potential Europa League place in seventh. The Clarets take on non-league side Lincoln City, one of two semi-professional teams in the Round of 16. With little to fight for amid mid-table obscurity in league play, it would be foolish for Burnley to rest the starters and risk becoming the next victim of Lincoln City’s amazing run. They don’t have another league match until the next weekend, and aren’t in any other competition to fill up the schedule. Easy decision.

Millwall vs. Leicester City, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Leicester City is in the midst of a fierce relegation battle just a season after winning the Premier League title. The Foxes still have not fallen into the relegation zone, but sit just one point above danger. By that thought, it’s clear the Foxes should rest their players. However, the win in the last FA Cup round seemed to provide a boost to morale amid a five-match losing streak in league play, and despite it not translating into points, giving the club a bigger chance to win could boost the team down the road. Still, it would seem resting the starters could be the smarter play here given the circumstances.

Huddersfield Town vs. Manchester City, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Huddersfield Town is on a roll in Championship play and could give Manchester City a good run. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Huddersfield Town is on a roll in the Championship. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

This is a tough draw for Manchester City, at least one of the tougher draws given the lower division opponents in the pool. Huddersfield is battling for a playoff spot in the Championship, sitting in third, six points clear in the playoffs and on a five-match league winning streak. Manchester City, meanwhile, is just hoping to stay within striking distance of leaders Chelsea, eight points back. They’re still in the Champions League as well, matched up with Monaco. With City on three fronts, and the FA Cup a distant third in the pecking order, they will likely rest some of the older players such as David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, and Yaya Toure. City has a deep enough squad to rotate players and still be heavily favored against a strong Championship side.

Middlesbrough vs. Oxford United, Saturday 10:00 a.m. ET

Boro takes on League One side Oxford United, and this looks similar to the Leicester situation. With Aitor Karanka‘s side in an eight-match winless run in league play and just two points above relegation, resting the starters is smart here against a mid-table League One opponent coming to town.

Wolves vs. Chelsea, Saturday 12:30 a.m. ET

Chelsea’s in great shape in Premier League play, eight points clear of anyone else and the huge favorites to claim the title. This is an obvious choice – play the boys. Sure, an injury to a key player like Diego Costa would be rough for the title run, but they have enough cushion and squad depth to push through it, and a domestic double would truly lead to a famous season for the Blues. Do I think Antonio Conte will play crucial pieces like Costa, Gary Cahill, and Cesar Azpilicueta? No, because I think he uses the opportunity to give Michy Batshuayi, Kurt Zouma, and Nathan Ake a run. But I think he should. A loss to struggling lower-division opponents like Wolves (on a three-match league losing streak) would put a damper on an otherwise stellar season.

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 9:00 a.m. ET

This is maybe the most fascinating matchup of the weekend. Mauricio Pochettino‘s club is in the midst of a goal drought, with just one goal in their last four matches across all competitions, and a strong lineup disappointed mightily on the road in Europa League play on Thursday. So, should Pochettino give the starters a rest having just played midweek and scheduled for yet another midweek game at Wembley just four days later? Or should he give the main men another runout to get back on top of things?

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho thinks Man United played poorly in 3-0 win ]

With Spurs reeling, a loss here is a decent possibility against a possession-heavy Championship side, especially if Slavisa Jokanovic deploys his starters at Craven Cottage, which is admittedly unlikely with the Whites holding an outside shot at the playoffs and needing every point possible in league play. Also consider Pochettino rested Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son against Gent, although both were needed off the bench in the eventual 1-0 loss. It will be interesting to see his, and Fulham’s, lineup come Sunday morning; Pochettino’s high-pressing style is a bad matchup for counter-prone Fulham no matter who is on the field, so maybe the boss believes that will win him the game even with fringe players.

Blackburn vs. Manchester United, Sunday 11:15 a.m. ET

As the Premier League top four continue to falter and Manchester United continues to perform, suddenly the Red Devils have Champions League life. However, trophies have become more precious to Manchester United fans as the steady flow has dried up following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. This is the dilemma for Jose Mourinho as he travels to Ewood Park. Against a club fighting for its Championship lives at the bottom of the table, it’s likely that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David De Gea, Paul Pogba, and other essential players could see the bench. However, also consider that United’s 3-0 win against St. Etienne on Thursday means that next week’s Europa League second leg presents yet another opportunity to rest starters, meaning the usual suspects could see the field in FA Cup action. Mourinho will have to pick and choose when to rest what players, and we’ll get a view into his mind when seeing the lineup card on Sunday.

Sutton United vs. Arsenal, Sunday 2:55 p.m. ET

This is a no-brainer for Arsene Wenger. Amid the turmoil surrounding the Gunners, with calls for Wenger’s job and the disaster at Bayern Munich, a loss to non-league Sutton United would send the North London club into absolute chaos. While the Gunners hang on for dear life in the Premier League top four, Wenger is forced into playing his starters. Should he rest players and the club loses, it would truly release the hounds, something the club cannot afford as it reaches the stretch run of Premier League play. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, and the rest of the regulars must play, especially with little riding on the midweek Champions League second leg as the matchup is all but over.

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.