Roll on the Champions Cup; FA Cup magic being slowly crushed

Morning Sports Briefing: Keep ahead of the game with ‘The Irish Times’ sports team

Darren Currie, the caretaker manager of Barnet, leads the celebrations following his side’s 1-0 shock victory against Sheffield United in the FA Cup. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Darren Currie, the caretaker manager of Barnet, leads the celebrations following his side’s 1-0 shock victory against Sheffield United in the FA Cup. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

It’s that week again. The week when the absolute very last vestiges of the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations have been drained. Work is back, the schools are back and everything returns to normal. But fear not, there are positives. The weather is unseasonably mild (or are these temperatures now just becoming normal for this time of the year?), we’re now getting close to the run into spring and then summer and this weekend the Champions Cup returns. Munster’s win over Connacht on Saturday night was probably their most impressive performance of the season so far and gives them cause for optimism ahead of a crunch European tie with Gloucester at Kingsholm next Friday, writes Gerry Thornley. Their 31-24 win in Galway was very heartening for Johann van Graan who also watched most of his players come through relatively unscathed, although John Ryan did fail a HIA and will now go through the regular protocols. Earlier on Saturday Leinster had got back to winning ways with a pretty easy 40-7 stroll past a very depleted Ulster at the RDS but they know that things are about to get a whole lot tougher when they meet Toulouse on Saturday. Most likely in that squad will be young centre Conor O’Brien who knows that he is on the cusp of realising his boyhood dream – as he spoke about after Saturday’s match.

Moving on and the third round of the FA Cup will come to a close this evening when Liverpool take on Wolves after a weekend of a few drubbings and a few shocks. Former Shamrock Rovers striker Pádraig Amond was the hero for little Newport County yesterday as they knocked out Leicester in a huge shock while, on the other end of the scale, a Manchester City second string crushed Rotherham 7-0 while, on Friday, Spurs had done the same to Tranmere Rovers. The gap between the top Premier League giants and the lower-league teams seems to only be growing and growing, making the FA Cup into some sort of a freakshow, as Ken Early writes this morning. “Why has this happened? The main reason is that the big clubs transparently no longer care about the competition, and yet their squads are so strong that they still win it nearly every year.” Manchester United looked far from their best when they took on Reading on Saturday but it mattered little as they closed out a 2-0 win without Paul Pogba. The Frenchman is still recovering from the injury he suffered as a result of Jonjo Shelvey’s tackle a few days previous and will be late to join up with the United squad in Dubai for their winter training camp. On Sunday, interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces his biggest test yet when United travel to Wembley to play Spurs.

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