With every round that comes and goes now, the inevitable slides closer and closer into view. Manchester United vs Chelsea for the second year in row, boring the hell out of each other (as well as all of us) with a terrible, attritional FA Cup final at the strangely echo-ey new Wembley Stadium. Still, never mind, because yesterday’s Fifth Round was another cracker, with Liverpool biting the dust in frankly spectacular circumstances. After Dirk Kuyt put Liverpool in front, a string of spectacular saves kept Barnsley in the game and the creeping feeling started to envelop me that Liverpool’s confidence was brittle enough for this to all go wrong, and so it proved when Stephen Foster levelled the scores. Liverpool continued to dominate, but none of this is to say that Barnsley didn’t deserve the win – Brian Howard’s winner, in the third minute of injury time, came after the referee bottled giving Barnsley a last minute penalty kick after a clear trip in Howard. Liverpool’s season, then, is continuing to unravel. With Inter to follow this week in the Champions League, they might only have an uphill battle to hold onto their European place to look forward to.
The other big surprise of the day took place at The Memorial Ground in Bristol, the pleasingly retro looking temporary home of Bristol Rovers, who beat Southampton 1-0 thanks to a free-kick that took a massive, sumptuous deflection off Southampton’s Jermaine Wright and left Kelvin Davis diving for a shot that wasn’t coming. As the cameras shakily panned across the disbelieving crowd, a little shiver ran down my spine – the realisation hitting me that this is what it’s all about. Truth be told, Rovers had matched The Saints for the entire game, and deserved their win as much as Barnsley did theirs. Rickie Lambert had what looked like a perfectly good goal disallowed goal before his shot cannoned off the unfortunate Wright. Southampton had five minutes to try and rescue something from the game, but with a swirling wind and on a terrible pitch, they never looked likely to. Rovers, then, are in the FA Cup Quarter Finals for the first time in fifty years.
The other Premier League teams through to the quarter-finals are, of course, Manchester United and Chelsea. United beat Arsenal in a match blighted by the fact that both managers saw fit to rest about half of their players. What the 4-0 result did seem to confirm was that Arsenal simply have no strength in depth whatsoever. On a day during which none of their players really covered themselves in any glory it seems a little unfair to pick out any individual player, but it has to be said that Arsene Wenger’s faith in Justin Hoyte is baffling, to say the least. Still, at least when Arsenal lose, they do it in style. 5-1 at Spurs and 4-0 at Manchester United are cup results that sit somewhat peculiarly next to their league form, and they have to travel to Milan in the week. Chelsea, meanwhile, overcame Huddersfield Town at Stamford Bridge, but not before they were given an almighty surprise when Michael Collins headed Huddersfield level right on half-time. They were, ultimately, no matches for the Premier League behemoths, and Chelsea could, in all honesty, have had five or six.
The final two matches were all-Championship affairs. Newly managerless Coventry City had what one can only describe as a “bad day at the office” at home against West Bromwich Albion. They’d been matching Albion ball for ball and were arguably unfortunate to be a single goal down. when Michael Doyle was sent off a couple of minutes into the second half. They folded after this, though, and Albion ran out easy 5-0 winners in the end. Last but not least, Cardiff City, as every good schoolboy knows, last won the FA Cup in 1927, but they’re back in the quarter-finals for the first time since then after having beaten Wolverhampton Wanderers, thanks to two early goals at Ninian Park. The second, scored by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, was worth the admission fee on its own. This afternoon, Sheffield United play Middlesbrough at Bramall Lane, and then Preston North End play Portsmouth. The lingering possibility remains that there could be just two Premier League teams in the last eight of the FA Cup – it couldn’t happen, could it?