18 February, 2008

You Try Telling Them the FA Cup’s Dead!

A little while ago you might remember us having a bit of a rant at a certain Guardian website writer who thought that the Championship was essentially shite. Well Mr Ronay, if it is that bad then how come there are more sides from lower leagues still in the FA Cup than from your glorious Premier League? How come Liverpool then, who are 5th in the top flight at the moment, have struggled against Luton and Havant & Waterlooville, before finally succumbing to that footballing behemoth that is Barnsley, at Anfield, this past weekend??

Let’s not take anything away from the Tykes though, they were outstanding and deserve all the praise in the world. Their approach was fearless, their effort unrelenting and their finishing was ultimately more clinical than the 2005 Champions League winners. Many of you I’m sure will have heard many Arsenal affiliates whinging about Nani disrespecting them on Saturday, but what’s more disrespectful than not starting the game with the likes of Pepe Reina and Steven Gerrard on the field, and then not even including Fernando Torres amongst the substitutes? Liverpool deserve all the criticism, both on the pitch and off, that they are getting at the moment, and with Inter Milan tomorrow night, this could be the week that they finally accept they are at crisis point. For Barnsley, debut goalkeeper Luke Steele was absolutely out of this world, producing save after save, including one from Yossi Benayoun that is as good as any you’ll see this season. It was captain Brian Howard though who was the last minute hero, bagging the winner after 90 minutes had ticked past by beating second string goalkeeper Charles Itandje at his near post. This came just seconds after Barnsley were denied a certain penalty in front of the Kop when Sami Hyypia actually grabbed Howard’s leg to stop him shooting. The referee, Martin Atkinson, bottled what would’ve obviously been a pretty unpopular decision, but thankfully justice was done 30 seconds later!

Accompanying Barnsley into this afternoon’s draw are fellow Championship sides Sheffield United (who drew with Middlesbrough), Cardiff (2 – 0 victors over Wolves, including a cracking Jimmy Floyd goal) and West Brom (comfortably beat Coventry 5 – 0), while League One side Bristol Rovers are also through after beating higher ranked opposition in Southampton (1 – 0) over Saturday lunchtime. Preston too almost produced a shock result at home to Portsmouth, but Pompey’s blushes were spared late on at Deepdale after the Championship side had dominated the game for large periods of time. With David James forced to make several world class saves (including one from the penalty spot) in the second half, Preston seemed to already be thinking about today’s draw when Niko Krancjar whipped in a speculative last minute corner, only for it to be deflected into his own net by Darren Carter.

More assured however were Chelsea, playing hosts to mid-table League One outfit Huddersfield in a game that saw the return of John Terry and also Frank Lampard breaking the 100 goal barrier for the Blues. Despite a gaping hole down the middle of the field where Lampard and Sidwell were supposed to be, and the handicap that is Claudio Pizarro on from the start, Chelsea never really looked in trouble as Huddersfield chased shadows for most of the game. Former Irish revolutionary Michael Collins equalized for the Terriers before halftime after Lampard’s mile-stone finish had put the expectant Blues fans at ease, but in the second half Chelsea simply had too much, with Lampard doubling his tally before bench-warmer Salamon Kalou put the result beyond doubt with 20 minutes to go.

And so to Old Trafford, and the pick of the round. The winners of this game could perhaps rightly assume that they would go all the way to Wembley in May, but for a side that supposedly takes the FA Cup seriously, Arsenal were shambolic to the extent of embarrassment. Manchester United clearly had something to prove after two drab performances back to back in the league, but even Alex Ferguson couldn’t have predicted a response like this. Kudos first to Carrick, Nani and Anderson, all were outstanding, but if ever you wonder if England have a true world class player, then Wayne Rooney delivered a masterclass in forward play, running Toure and Gallas in circles before being taken off with Lyon on Wednesday in mind. His performance epitomized his reputation; pugnacious, vitriolic and passionate, lifting both player and fan alike as he took the fight to the current Premier League leaders. There are few positives however for Arsene Wenger, as his team’s discipline vanished before halftime. They were wasting possession, losing their men at set pieces and even had Emmanuel Eboue sent off for a chest-high kick on Patrice Evra. They simply could not handle Nani all game, but as the score rapidly rose, so did his confidence, with trick after trick coming out of the locker to further goad the frustrated Gunners. Subsequently most of the team tried to break the Portuguese winger in half, while at the other end of the field, Emmanuel Adebayor’s sole contribution was a desperate dive for a penalty that he should actually be ashamed of; although booked for the crime, surely in those more obvious instances, a straight red would be appropriate?

So here’s how they line up in the quarter-finals then, ties to be played over the weekend of 8th/9th March…

Manchester United v Portsmouth

Barnsley v Chelsea

Bristol Rovers v West Bromich Albion

Sheffield United or Middlesbrough v Cardiff

While it’s great that they’ll be at least one lower league team in the semi-finals, let’s at least try and avoid another Manchester United v Chelsea final please everyone!