Imagine a boot with a circle of stars on the sole of it stamping on a human face forever. This evening sees a new low in the status of the FA Cup and a new high in the ascendency of the Champions League over all other football competitions. UEFA has seen fit to spread the Champions League round of sixteen over two weeks this year, and this means a clash with the Fifth Round replays in the FA Cup. The problem with this comes with the fact that both of these competitions are broadcast by ITV. Something is going to have to give.
It is, of course, the FA Cup that is going to have to give. It would be foolish to suggest that any broadcaster – never mind a commercial one – should have any obligation to Tottenham vs Bolton or Aston Villa vs Crystal Palace over Internazionale vs Chelsea on their mainstream channel, but this isn’t where it ends for ITV this week. They have commitments with the Europa League (remember that?) tomorrow night, so they are ignoring the five Premier League clubs that are playing in the FA Cup on the television (ITV2 is showing American Pie: The Wedding, ITV3 is showing a repeat of Canterbury Tales from 2003 and ITV4 – the usual home of sports that there are no room for on ITV1 – is showing… a repeat of “Highlander”).
The match between Stoke City and Manchester City is hidden away on the ITV website, but supporters of Tottenham, Bolton, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace are stuck with the FA’s website and its occasionally juddery feeds of the matches. The clubs have decided to make the best of a bad situation, and it seems to have worked. Aston Villa have reduced prices to £10 and £15 for adults, while Stoke City are charging £22 to get in for their match against Manchester City, and Spurs – normally one of the most expensive places in the country to get a ticket for – have cut their prices to £20 and are available on the turnstiles tonight – not a regular occurrence at White Hart Lane these days.
There is an element of a double-edged sword about this. For Crystal Palace, fighting for their lives and in administration, the FA Cup has been a life-line in a season that has been financially dismal for them. Not only have they lost out on any potential television match (although there are no guarantees that their replay would have been chosen anyway, no matter how attractive the first match between the two sides was), but they have probably also lost out on the shared revenue from ticket sales for the match. There may be 40,000 at Villa Park tonight, but with those present paying £15 for a ticket, their income from the match may not be as much as they might have hoped. Not that we should blame Aston Villa for this, though – they have no obligation to sting their own supporters because Crystal Palace haven’t been able to balance their books this season.
White Hart Lane, meanwhile, looks reasonably full – the crowd is over 31,000 – for the visit of Bolton Wanderers, and there is optimism in the air. Spurs coasted to a 3-0 win at Wigan Athletic on Saturday, in a match played on one of the worst pitches used for a match in the top division of English football over the last twenty years or so. Meanwhile, two of their rivals for a place in next year’s Champions League, Manchester City and Liverpool, played out a goalless draw which suited them down to the ground. They go into this match in the fourth Champions League place, although most Spurs supporters are too used to a toxic combination of false dawns and over-expectation to be getting too excited about that just yet.
Bolton’s fortunes haven’t improved massively since the appointment of Owen Coyle. They haven’t scored a Premier League goal since the one that beat Burnley on the twenty-sixth of January and remain in the relegation places with twelve games of the season left to play. On the evidence of the first half, it isn’t terribly difficult to see why. Spurs are sloppy in the first half, gifting chances and half-chances to their visitors on five or six occasions, but Bolton either snatch at or waste the opportunities. Heurelho Gomes only has one real save to make, though, a block with his legs from a shot from Matthew Taylor.
Midway through the first half, though, Spurs take the lead. Roman Pavlyuchenko has cut a singular figure at White Hart Lane since his ill-starred transfer to the club from Spartak Moscow, with his frustration at falling out of form culminating in an outburst that led to a straining of his relationship with Harry Redknapp. He started this evening, and after twenty-two minutes wriggles free of his marker and slides the ball smartly past Jussi Jaaskelainen. Twelve minutes later, a slice of good fortune more or less kills the ball off. Wilson Palacios crosses from the right, and Jermaine Defoe meets Jaaskelainen. The ball flashes in but Defoe looks sheepish amongst the celebrations. The third action replay shows why – the cross has bounced in off the inside of Jaaskelainen’s leg for an own goal.
Defoe is replaced at half-time by another comparative outcast, a former Bolton Wanderers striker, Eidur Gudjohnsen. Three minutes in, Bolton’s run of appalling luck continues. A low cross from the left is met by Andrew O’Brien, but his attempt to clear the ball only ends with the ball rolling past Jaaskelainen and in to tie the game up. Bolton continue to show flashes of intelligence, but Spurs are taking it easy now. Gudjohnsen harshly has a fourth goal ruled out for offside and Bolton, to their enormous credit, never stop chasing the lost cause but then, with four minutes to play a ball swept into the penalty area is dummied for Pavlyuchenkco, who side-steps his marker and rolls the ball calmly into the back of the net. Tonight has been a good night for Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Spurs, then, go through to the Sixth Round, where they face a tricky trip to Craven Cottage to play Fulham. With Manchester City (at the time of writing) having been knocked out of the competition at Stoke City this evening, they will like the idea of the field of contenders to win the competition narrowing slightly, although there are still plenty of minefields for them in this competition. And for Roman Pavlyuchenko, there was the satisfaction of a job well done and the possible notion that, with a match at Wembley just one win away and the race for that fourth place in the Champions League likely to go to the wire, he might arrive at the conclusion that White Hart Lane isn’t quite such a bad place to be after all.