10 March, 2008

FA Cup Quarter Finals - Giants Now Extinct

You don’t need me to tell you what an incredible weekend for football this has been; pick your own cliché but we really did see the rebirth of cup magic on Saturday evening as one of the greatest upsets of all time took place in Yorkshire. To the glory of all neutrals around the world, including one would imagine a certain Mr Mourinho, struggling Championship side Barnsley did the impossible and beat Chelsea 1 – 0 at Oakwell. Don’t think for one minute though the Tykes got lucky or robbed the Blues, they thoroughly deserved the win as they did up at Anfield a couple of weeks ago. With only Cech and Drogba absent from what would be Avram Grant’s strongest 11, Chelsea would’ve expected to cruise through to the semi-finals, especially buoyed on by Manchester United’s shock exit earlier that day, but despite early pressure not once did they force 5th round hero Luke Steele into making a save in the Barnsley goal.

Joe Cole looked to be the only Chelsea forward remotely interested in the first half, causing problems with some direct running and tricky dribbling, but with no-one else on his wave-length, attacks seemed to consistently break down in the final third of the pitch. Time and time again Barnsley defenders threw themselves on any sign of danger, snuffing out several half-hearted Anelka attempts as they themselves grew into the game and felt comfortable amongst Chelsea’s multi-millionaires. The break-through came for the Tykes just after the hour-mark, with striker Kayode Odejayi climbing above Carlo Cudicini to nod in a beautifully stood-up Devaney cross and shock the Premier League big boys with only his second goal of the season. Following the goal Chelsea seemed to wake up a touch, but were still unable to convert their almost exclusive possession into a clear cut chance as Barnsley got everyone behind the ball and dug in to the final whistle. Fingers have been pointed at Avram Grant for his team selection and motivational techniques but at the end of the day surely the buck has to stop with the players? For supposedly world-class footballers, no-one on the Chelsea side can really hold their head up today after what was a flat, passionless and downright embarrassing performance; if the likes of Malouda, Anelka, Wright-Phillips, Kalou and Pizarro were half as good as they clearly think they are then this should’ve been a walkover. Take nothing away from Barnsley though, to a man they were outstanding. Special kudos go out to Hassell, Kozluk and Adejayi, all were simply immense in the face of such a gulf in reputation and salary.

On any other day the headline would’ve undoubtedly been at Old Trafford though, where Portsmouth recorded their first win against United in Manchester for 51 years through a late Sulley Muntari penalty. Flying high after advancing past Lyon in the Champions League midweek, Man United came out of the blocks fast and often threatened in a dominating first half performance that saw Pompey’s resolute defence severely tested several times. After just 6 minutes Cristiano Ronaldo latched onto a lovely pass from Rooney to drive past Hreidesson into the Portsmouth penalty area, only to be upended by the covering Sylvain Distin. Ronaldo and Ferguson were especially livid when the referee waved play on, and in retrospect one might perhaps expect a penalty to be awarded, but Distin’s challenge was shoulder-to-shoulder and he simply out-muscled the United speedster. Heroics a few minutes later from Sol Campbell and Glen Johnson kept Rooney and then Tevez out in quick succession, and with the scores level at halftime Pompey started to feel confident with the ball at their feet finally.

Still United created chances though, with Ronaldo getting increasingly frustrated as shots from him and Tevez dribbled wide of the Portsmouth goal. Substitute Michael Carrick was fed by a superb back-heel by the Portuguese twinkletoes on 67 minutes, but having rounded the keeper was tackled on the line by Distin rebounding the ball precariously around the 6-yard area until David James was able to pounce on it. Patrice Evra then saw a rasping drive pushed onto the post miraculously by James as Pompey started to feel that maybe it wasn’t going to be United’s day, finding more and more space in their opponent’s half as they pushed for a smash-and-grab winner. With less than 15 minutes remaining, Krancjar broke away down the right and was able to feed in Milan Baros, only for the Czech striker to be brought down by substitute keeper Tomas Kuszczak and a penalty was awarded. With Kuszczak himself already on for the injured van der Sar, United were forced to put Rio Ferdinand in goal for not the first time in his career following Kuszczak’s red card, but the professional merker was powerless to stop Muntari blasting his spotkick into the corner of the net. United felt robbed after the game, with uncharacteristic histrionics from Alex Ferguson and Carlos Quiroz directed at the referee, but the fact of the matter is that Pompey played superbly throughout, with Diarra, Muntari and Johnson especially worthy of praise. Like Arsene Wenger, why is the Red’s boss unable to be gracious in defeat and just admit they were beaten fair and square?

And still the upsets kept coming. Never ones to be outdone, Cardiff decided to get in on the giant-killing act too over Sunday lunchtime, totally embarrassing a hapless Middlesbrough team on their own turf. Inspired by ex-Boro star Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, the Bluebirds stamped their authority on the tie right from the first whistle, and not once did Middlesbrough look like the higher-ranked team as Cardiff created defensive confusion every time they attacked in the opening 45 minutes. A sublime individual goal from Peter Whittingham put the Championship side ahead early on, with clever footwork carving a shooting opportunity despite being surrounded by 4 Boro players. The second came not long after as the excellent defender Johnson headed past Schwarzer after being left completely free at the back post. Gareth Southgate must’ve wanted to trot on himself after watching cross after cross fly dangerously into the Boro box, and in all honesty the Premier League side were lucky to not be 4 – 0 down at halftime.

The introduction of every buffet’s nightmare, Mido, after the break did little for Boro’s aspirations and in the full 90 minutes they depressingly managed just the one shot on target. Overall the performance was flat and lazy, with some of the most wasteful passing and striking you’ll see this year. As with Barnsley before them, every Cardiff player was a hero at the Riverside but worthy of particular mention were Scottish right-back McNoughton, McPhail in the midfield, and 17-year-old Liverpool target Aaron Ramsey down the left flank.

So, on the back of three games and three upsets, anticipation was understandably high at the Memorial Ground in Bristol early Sunday evening as Rovers aimed to make it four out of four for the lower league clubs. Alas it wasn’t to be however, despite a spiriting showing from the home team that the final scoreline severely betrays. The Baggies went ahead early on when James Morrison pounced on a parry from Rovers keeper Steve Phillips, after he failed to properly deal with Roman Bednar's straight-forward toe-poke, and from that moment you just felt West Brom relax and take control. Ishmael Miller doubled the lead shortly afterwards with a cracking left-foot shot having drifted in off his right wing, but the home side’s heads didn’t drop and they bagged a scrappy goal themselves shortly after to keep the dream alive. As pressure built towards the end of the first half, Miller broke away and looked certain to restore the two goal advantage, but he comically lost his footing after rounding the stranded goalkeeper.

Rovers started the second period brightly as the crowd whipped up a riot to spurn their side on to snatch an equaliser, but with Dean Kiley in the West Brom goal having to make few actual saves, the semi-finals looked to be just a round to far for the Pirates. A Hinton mistake at the back gifted Miller his second of the game, and with Tony Mowbrey affording the luxury of bringing Zoltan Gera and Kevin Phillips off the bench with twenty minutes left, Rovers never really got back in the game. A late poach from Phillips, and a measured strike from Miller to complete his hat-trick, make the game look like a rout but Bristol Rovers did themselves proud to keep their heads high in the city that could well be hosting top flight games next season for the first time in more than thirty years.

So the FA Cup is well and truly up for grabs then now, with all four remaining teams definitely feeling that they have a realistic chance of winning it. Obviously Portsmouth are the clear favourites, but given how things have gone this year who’s to bet against the first lower tier team since XXX taking home the famous old silverware. It’s been a great competition for the neutral so far, and without doubt for once football truly has been the winner with 3 Championship sides making up 4 of the semi-finalists. I wonder what our good friend Barney Ronay has to say about his glorious Premier League now?

One quick gripe though: why must the semi-finals also be played at Wembley now? Doesn’t that kind of detract from the magic of the stadium and the thrill of that first time appearance in the stadium for a final? The journey is to Wembley, so why shoot your metaphorical load early by playing there in the semis too?

(Well obviously because the stadium went millions over budget and the FA are happy to do anything to recoup it all as soon as possible, but that’s beside the point.)

Here's the draw for the men's semis:

Barnsley vs. Cardiff City

West Bromwich Albion vs. Portsmouth

STT just watched the draw with Match of the Day 2 presenter and Baggies fan Adrian Chiles and he was not a happy chappie. He had this to say:

'Fuck! Bollocks! I'm going home.'