On a list of Sheffield Wednesday’s priorities, head coach Carlos Carvalhal openly admits the FA Cup is well behind the Championship.
You could probably have forgiven Carvalhal for selecting a weakened team against Fulham. After all, FA Cup third round day is not the event it once was and the Owls have two important league fixtures looming on the horizon.
But Carvalhal fielded a strong, attacking line-up.
While promotion to the Premier League is their number one objective, the Portuguese chief recognises the value in doing well in the cup competitions.
Knocking out Newcastle United and Arsenal en route to reaching the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup aided Wednesday’s league form. They went 11 matches unbeaten, turning around their sluggish start to the campaign.
Two of the three changes Carvalhal made were enforced. Fernando Forestieri was ruled out through injury while Gary Hooper was denied permission to play in the tie by his parent club Norwich City. Atdhe Nuhiu also dropped out. More on him later.
Alex Lopez, Modou Sougou, who was lively, and Lucas Joao came in as the Owls produced a scratchy display. Many aspects of their performance were mediocre but Fulham lacked the confidence or cutting edge in the final third to punish them.
The FA Cup may have lost some of its magic and lustre, but Bannan lit up a scrappy tie with a magical strike in another goal-of-the-season contender. The Scotland international, who recently agreed a new three-and-a-half-year deal, unleashed a fierce, dipping half-volley from 25 yards which went in off the crossbar.
Bannan, one of the Owls’ standout performers this term, wheeled away in celebration towards their technical area, enjoying the acclaim of his teammates and backroom staff. Chants of ‘there’s only one Barry Bannan’ reverberated around Hillsborough. His contribution to the cause has not gone unnoticed.
“It was a fantastic goal from a fantastic player,” admitted Carvalhal.
Bannan’s second goal in Wednesday colours gave the hosts the initiative and should have been the cataylst for them to push on and record a routine home win.
But just over a minute after Bannan’s pearler, Fulham levelled things up, substitute Moussa Dembele rifling home after a dangerous raid by Ross McCormack.
Defensively the Owls looked anything but secure from that point onwards and McCormack, so often Wednesday’s nemesis, spurned a great chance to put Fulham ahead before the interval after breaking clear.
Like Wednesday, the Cottagers priorities lie elsewhere. New boss Slavisa Jokanovic will be keen for them to start putting some distance between themselves and the bottom three.
Yet they could have claimed a morale-boosting cup victory had their finishing been up to scratch.
There were times when the Owls rode their luck after the interval and Joe Wildsmith pulled off a superb save to turn behind Dembele’s close range header.
Carvalhal said: “The big goalkeepers show their abilities in the correct moments. Goalkeepers who play for the big sides keep their concentration well, even when they don’t have too many saves to make. In my opinion, we have the best goalkeeper in the league in Keiren Westwood and Joe will be in the future.”
As part of their game plan, Carvalhal confirmed Wednesday wanted Fulham to monopolise possession so they could pick them off on the counter attack.
That tactic nearly backfired on them but Alexander Kacaniklic some how failed to turn in Tom Cairney’s delivery from a couple of yards out. It was a terrible miss and proved very costly.
With 17 minutes left, Nuhiu, a second half replacement for Sougou, volleyed in from the edge of the area to break Fulham’s hearts.
Nuhiu said: “I was hoping if Lucas [Joao] wins the ball that it drops to where I am and then it was a bit of instinct. With those type of goals, it if goes in, it’s a beauty. If it goes wrong, it is over the stadium. In the last two games, I think we have scored three beauties! Mine was a nice goal but it wasn’t as nice as Bannan’s!”
The cornerstone of any successful team is their home form and Wednesday have made Hillsborough an intimidating place for opponents to come, winning 11 out of their 16 matches in all competitions this term.
“We are winning games at home and causing our opponents lots of problems,” said Carvalhal, who is hoping for a big home tie in the next round. “We have created a positive environment and teams are showing us more respect.”
Too many clubs nowadays give short shrift to the FA Cup, regarding the world’s oldest knockout competition as an unnecessary distraction.
So good on Carvalhal for choosing the best side he had at his disposal. His team will only get stronger when their injured stars return to action.
Wednesday: Wildsmith 7; Palmer 6, Sasso 7, Loovens 6, Pudil 7; Wallace 6 (Semedo 77), Lee 6, Lopez 5 (Helan HT, 6), Bannan 7; Sougou 7 (Nuhiu 59, 7), Joao 6. Substitutes: Price, Hunt, Wiggins, Bus.
Fulham: Lonergan 6; Richards 6, Hutchinson 7, Burn 7, Garbutt 6 (Ream 71); Kacaniklic 6 (Mattila 71), Cairney 7, O’Hara 6, Vigen Christensen 6; McCormack 6, Woodrow 5 (Dembele 25, 7). Substitutes: Lewis, Stearman, Smith, Pringle.
Referee: Gavin Ward (Surrey)