Wrexham, Stevenage conjure up FA Cup magic

Another weekend of European football is in the books and, once again, there is drama everywhere you look. Minnows Wrexham and Stevenage have waltzed their way past Premier League opposition and into the fourth round of the FA Cup, while Barcelona took an almighty step ahead of Real Madrid in the LaLiga title race.

ESPN correspondents Julien Laurens, James Tyler, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland and Sam Marsden break down the big stuff you need to know about the weekend.

Jump to: Talking points | Best goals | Teams in trouble | MVP of the weekend


Talking points

Magic of the Cup is alive and well

The first weekend of January is traditionally reserved for the FA Cup third round, and part of that tradition is the “cupset,” whereby a lower-league or non-league team catches a better-resourced club off guard and steals a memorable win. It’s a tale as old as time, and this weekend yielded several wonderful results to tell your grandchildren about many years from now.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)

First up, Wrexham. Yes, they’re an actual team and not just a documentary series, and this weekend saw the Welsh side shock Coventry City 4-3 away from home in front of a raucous crowd. Having surged to a 4-1 lead midway through the second half with a Paul Mullin penalty, they rode their luck as Coventry scored twice in seven minutes to force a nervous final 15 minutes.

Sheffield Wednesday (third-tier) stunned Newcastle United (Premier League) 2-1, League Two’s Stevenage scored twice in the dying embers of their match to send Aston Villa packing, non-league Boreham Wood forced a replay with League One’s Accrington Stanley following a 1-1 draw, and West Bromwich Albion (flying high in the Championship) needed a 90th-minute goal to get a 3-3 draw (and replay) against non-league Chesterfield. While not many of the biggest teams fell in the third round, the results still brought a mixture of joy and eyebrow-raising all the same. It’s a weekend like no other. –Tyler

City’s squad goes deep this season

Pep Guardiola has usually chosen to work with a relatively small group of players (albeit very good ones) during his time at Manchester City, but this season he’s benefitting from a larger squad. Against Chelsea on Sunday, he was able to leave Ederson, Erling Haaland and Kevin DeBruyne on the bench and still comfortably win 4-0, and it’s a good sign ahead of a busy second half of the season.

– Ogden: Chelsea fans fed up as Potter’s side fails to compete

In the past, a couple of injuries have derailed City’s attempts to win an unprecedented quadruple, but there’s more strength in depth now and it makes winning four trophies a genuine possibility. Guardiola won’t talk about it this early, but, sitting second in the Premier League and progressing in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Champions League, he’s never been in a better position to achieve something never seen before in English football.

During the 2019-20 season, injuries forced Guardiola to field midfielder Fernandinho at centre-back for much of the campaign. Since the World Cup, Guardiola has been without Ruben Diasbut it’s barely been noticed because he can call on John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake. There’s a long way to go, but City have the options to do something special this season. — Dawson

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Frank Leboeuf reacts to Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup.

Juventus’ revival is mind-blowing

It is certainly the most unexpected U-turn in European football this season. Juventus are back from the dead, and manager Max Allegri is once again proving his tactical nous from him. With an eighth league win in a row against Udinese on Saturday (1-0) and an eighth clean sheet in a row too, Juve are turning their season around like never seen before.

From heavy criticism and bad results domestically and in the Champions League, the Bianconeri are an unstoppable, winning machine again — just like the good old days.

Even the injuries they have are not slowing them down. Even the average performances they put in at times are not hindering their winning streak. They are solid and don’t concede goals despite giving the opposition chances.

When will it stop? Away at Naples on Friday night? Potentially, but they could also do a big defensive job there and have Henry Church, Filip Kostic and Adrien Rabiot hit the Serie A leaders in transition. The week after they host Atalanta, which could be tricky too. But, for now, no one will be too optimistic facing Juve in their current form. — Laurens

Barca capitalize on Madrid’s slip

The LaLiga pendulum swung Barcelona’s way as they beat Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid lost at Villarreal to leave Xavi Hernandez’s side three points clear at the top of the table after 16 games.

Carlo Ancelotti named a Madrid side without any Spanish players for the first time in the club’s history and then proceeded to watch as his side were taken apart by former Barca coach Quique Setien’s Villarreal.

– Marsden: Barcelona nab pivotal win in LaLiga title race

Back at El Madrigal following renovation work, Villarreal were roared on by a vocal home support and were good money for their 2-1 win, with Yeremy Pino and Gerard Moreno‘s penalty sandwiching Karim Benzema‘s spot kick.

It set up an intriguing encounter in Madrid on Sunday. Barca had the chance to move three clears again, having slipped up last weekend against Espanyol, while Atletico, with a win, could gained a sliver of hope in the title race by moving to within eight points of Madrid and Barca.

It was Barca who took advantage of Madrid’s defeat, though, with Ousmane Dembele scoring the game’s only goal in the absence of the suspended Robert Lewandowski. Athletes were good value for a draw but could not take their chances, despite having doubling Barca’s shot count. Jose Maria Gimenez shaved the post and Antoine Griezmannagainst his former side, was denied by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and then, deep in stoppage time, by a goal-line clearance from Ronald Araujo –Marsden


Goals

A word about Darwin Nunez

The internet has had good fun with the new Liverpool striker this season, howling with joy on Twitter with every glaring miss, baffling decision on the ball or thundering shot that’s narrowly wide. And yet, the Uruguay international hasn’t shown signs of losing any confidence, and with nine goals in 22 appearances (all competitions) this season, he’s still doing what’s expected.

However, Saturday’s goal was so unexpected given both its simplicity — Trent Alexander-Arnold long ball, Nunez volley, goal — and its difficulty level. Not only was Alexander-Arnold’s delivery absolutely inch-perfect from such range, but the casual manner in which Nunez’s outstretched leg just guided the ball beyond Wolverhampton Wanderers keeper Matija Sarkic it was equally impossible. However, the 2-2 draw — and after Wolves had a winner disallowed for offside — meant the strike loses a little bit of luster. –Tyler

Touching tribute from Henrique

Luiz Henrique‘s winning goal at Rayo Vallecano not only moved Real Betis into the Champions League places in LaLiga, it was also an extremely emotional moment for the young Brazilian, whose father passed away at the end of December. It was also a brilliant individual effort.

Henrique is by the center circle when he picks the ball up, producing a fine piece of skill to skip past his marker before driving into the box. Once there, he feints onto his right foot and buries the ball in the bottom corner.

After scoring, the ex-Fluminense forward sank to his knees and pointed to the sky. That one was for dad. –Marsden

This is Ten Hag-ball

Anthony‘s goal for Manchester United against Everton on Friday wasn’t spectacular, but it did showcase everything that Erik ten Hag is trying to do at Old Trafford.

Moving the ball forward quickly, Marcus Rashford in the type of form that scares defenders and a simple finish for the Brazilian winger. For too long United have looked like a team without a plan, but under Ten Hag it’s very clear. — Dawson


Teams in trouble

Nice’s season goes from bad to worse after Cup humiliation

The last thing Nice needed in this very complicated and disappointing season was another bad moment. And guess what they got this weekend? An embarrassing exit from the French Cup in their first round against a team third from bottom in the third division.

It was a proper cupset that Le Puy inflicted on Lucien Favre and his team: a 1-0 smash-and-grab win at home.

Nice are supposed to be a top team in Ligue 1 but, at the moment, they are everything but that. They are a shambles of a team owned by one of the richest men in Europe.

They are 12th in the league, miles away from their ambition and objective at the start of the campaign. They are not playing well and some players, like strikers Andy Delort, are not happy and want out. It’s a catastrophic situation. — Laurens

Espanyol have a relegation battle on their hands

Espanyol slipped to second bottom of LaLiga with a disappointing 2-2 draw at home to Girona on Saturday. Diego Martinez’s side had returned from the World Cup in good form, drawing with Barcelona and beating Celta Vigo to advance to the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.

They had come from behind to lead Girona 2-1 at the RCDE Stadium with a stellar second-half showing led by striker Joselu, who netted his 10th goal of the season in all competitions. However, that good work was ruined when Yangel Herrerathe on-loan Man City midfielder who spent last season at Espanyol, headed in a late equaliser.

Espanyol look too good to go down. They have a good source of goals in Joselu, and Martinez is a highly rated coach, but just two wins in 16 league games is not good. They will look positively at the fact they have drawn eight matches — they are never far away in games — but a relegation battle is now very much on the cards. –Marsden


Weekend MVPs

Moreno in fine form in Villarreal’s big win over Madrid

You could make a compelling case for several candidates from Villarreal’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid on Saturday — Raul Albiol‘s imperious showing at the back and Dani Parejo‘s midfield dominance made them both strong contenders — but it’s hard to argue with Moreno’s contribution in attack.

Yes, he came away with a goal and an assist, playing the pass for Yeremy Pino’s 47th-minute opener and converting the penalty that gave Villarreal all three points, but his all-round performance was so much more than that, tormenting Madrid’s defense with his quick, clever touches and intelligent movement. Moreno missed much of the season so far — and the World Cup — through injury, and it’s good to have him back. –Kirkland

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