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
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?
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.