It's Lambert's job to make sure cup is not a distraction
IMAGINE a manager arriving into an office today and declaring that, this Thursday for example, they know their employees have to come into work but they aren't too bothered by how much they do or the quality of their work.
For some, there would be no change in attitude or output because their work ethic would shine through regardless. For most, however, it would be a chance to catch up on their emails, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and where they are taking their summer holidays because if their boss doesn't care, why should they?
When Paul Lambert last week announced that he felt the FA Cup was "a distraction" and that many Premier League managers would prefer to do without it, he immediately gave his players a cop-out from their game against Sheffield United. And there's nothing struggling players like more than a cop-out.
As is the last refuge of those whose mouth has got them into trouble, Lambert claimed that his words were taken out of context, even though the clip of his quotes -- and the preceding question -- is publicly available. It felt like a man desperately trying to dig upwards.
"I never demeaned the competition one bit," insisted Lambert following the 2-1 defeat to a League One team. "I respect its history and I respect what the competition is about.
"If you look at my own career, I've won some nice things through cup competitions. The context of the whole interview (was missed). I was not decrying the competition at all."
There's a lot of guff spoken about the magic and tradition of the FA Cup on third-round weekend, and then those who bang on about its place in the English game produce a pink (or officially melon-coloured) ball to play with, have kick-off times of across the weekend of 12.0, 12.45, 2.0, 2.15, 3.0, 4.30 and 5.15 and do the draw for the fourth round before several third-round games have kicked off. Not exactly like the days of Ronnie Radford.
But the worrying point from an Aston Villa perspective was that Lambert shouldn't care about how his words were viewed in relation to the traditions of the competition but, instead, the impact they would have on the club he manages.
Lambert, unfortunately, is correct when he argues that, in the modern game, staying in the Premier League is more important to a club's future than winning a cup, but the implication that one has a negative impact on the chances of achieving the other is peculiar. If a team is involved in a Champions League game or has a crucial league match in the days after an FA Cup tie, then a manager can be justified in prioritising one competition over another.
Yet Aston Villa's next game isn't until they face Arsenal on this night next week or, to put it another way, nine days after they played a team who are one point above the League One relegation zone and four points behind Crawley Town.
Lambert only made three changes to team that beat Sunderland on New Year's Day but it's the change in mindset that his pre-match press conference projected which set them up to have just two shots on target against a team 51 places below them in the league rankings.
The cup may well be a distraction to a club but it's a manager's job to ensure that it's not a negative one, especially when the game comes in the first week of January.
Yesterday, Sam Allardyce chose to field a bunch of young players who had Stewart Downing to look up to as their captain and lost 5-0 to a team in the division below them. If he is still in charge, Allardyce might try to justify the absence of a cup run as some kind of masterstroke should West Ham avoid relegation but if he was capable of switching his team's displays on and off, he might be as good a manager as he seems to think he is.
Allardyce and Lambert might point to Wigan Athletic, who last season won the FA Cup and were relegated, with the lazy correlation being that one had something to do with the other. Yet, in the six games that immediately followed an FA Cup tie, Wigan managed two victories, a draw and three defeats which, were it projected through a 38-game season, would equate to 43 points -- a tally which finished in 12th position.
Lambert and his players missed a golden opportunity to give most of the 24,000 at Villa Park a brief respite from the general misery that has surrounded the ground for the past couple of seasons, and the suggestion that Saturday's game wasn't particularly important will only compound the negativity.
So far this season, Villa have failed to score in six of their 10 home games, with just seven goals and two wins to cheer the home support which, for many years, was one of the league's most vociferous. It continues a pattern of the previous two seasons in which Villa won just nine of their 38 league games, with 50 goals in their last 48 games at Villa Park.
For Lambert's sake, the players need to react strongly when Arsenal visit next week because, with a trip to Anfield and a derby at home to West Brom to follow before the end of the month, the table could soon look far different than their current 12th place suggests.
And with no FA Cup to provide any kind of distraction, there will be no place for anyone to hide.
Bet you should have done
Sheffield United to beat Aston Villa 8/1
A League One team taking on a Premier League team would normally be justified at these odds, but with Paul Lambert being quite open about his ambivalence to the competition, the chances of an upset increased hugely.
Villa's home record has been poor this season and while Sheffield United are not the force of old, they still had enough to spring a shock.
Soccer on TV
Today -- Napoli v Sampdoria, 11.30; AC Milan v Atalanta, 2.0; Lazio v Inter Milan, 5.30; all Serie A, BT Sport 1. Real Madrid v Celta Vigo, La Liga, Sky Sports 1, 6.0; Crusaders v Dungannon Swifts, Irish Premiership, Sky Sports 1, 8.05
Tomorrow -- Sunderland v Man Utd, Capital One Cup, Sky Sports 1, 7.45; Valencia v Atletico Madrid, Copa del Rey, Sky Sports 3, 9.0
Wednesday -- Real Betis v Athletic Bilbao, Copa del Rey, Sky Sports 2, 7.0; Man City v West Ham, Capital One Cup, Sky Sports 1, 7.45; Barcelona v Getafe, Copa del Rey, Sky Sports 2, 9.0
Thursday -- Real Sociedad v Villarreal, Copa del Rey, Sky Sports 2, 6.30; Forest Green Rovers v Hereford United, Conference Premier League, BT Sport 1, 7.30; Real Madrid v Osasuna, Copa del Rey, Sky Sports 2, 8.30
Friday -- Montpellier v Monaco, Ligue 1, BT Sport 2, 7.30; Leicester City v Derby County, Championship, Sky Sports 1, 7.45; Aberdeen v Hibernian, Scottish Prem, BT Sport 1, 7.45
Saturday -- Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds United, Championship, Sky Sports 1, 12.15; Hull City v Chelsea, Premier League, BT Sport 1, 12.45; Man Utd v Swansea City, Premier League, Sky Sports 1, 5.30; Bordeaux v Toulouse, Ligue 1, BT Sport 1, 7.0; Atletico Madrid v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 4, 7.0; Bologna v Lazio, Serie A, BT Sport 2, 7.45 Elche v Sevilla, La Liga, Sky Sports 4, 9.0
Sunday -- Torino v Fiorentina. Serie A, BT Sport 1, 11.30; Inverness CT v Dundee United, Scottish Premiership, Sky Sports 3, 12.45; Nantes v Lorient, Ligue 1, BT Sport 2, 1.0; Cagliari v Juventus, Serie A, BT Sport 1, 2.0; Newcastle United v Man City, Premier League, Sky Sports 1, 2.05; Evian v Marseille, Ligue 1, BT Sport 1, 4.0; Stoke City v Liverpool, Premier League, Sky Sports 1, 4.10; Espanyol v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 1, 6.0; Sassuolo v AC Milan, Serie A, BT Sport 1, 7.45; Lille v Reims, Ligue 1, BT Sport 2, 8.0; Levante v Malaga, La Liga. Sky Sports 1, 8.0