There has been a mixed reaction to last weekend’s FA Cup results. The split seems to have been something like 50/50. On the one hand, there are those like James Lawton of The Independent, who regarded Arsenal’s performance at Old Trafford on Saturday evening as a portent of doom for the FA Cup. He seems, in his article, to live in a different world to the rest of us, and also overlooks the fact that a sizeable number of the rest of us couldn’t give a damn how seriously the “Big Four” take it. The simple fact of the matter is that these clubs have resources which are so vastly greater than anyone else’s that it shouldn’t even matter whether they put out their entire reserve teams. What we learnt from last weekend’s FA Cup matches is that Arsenal, for all the hubris surrounding them (and Lawton himself is at the centre of that particular vortex), don’t actually have very great strength in depth, and that the same applies to an even greater extent with Liverpool. Both sides were undone by teams that wanted it more.
Curiously, this morning’s news that Avram Grant is likely to rest John Terry and Frank Lampard for Chelsea’s Champions League match against Olympiakos ahead of next weekend’s League Cup final against Spurs isn’t being talked about in this respect. No-one is suggesting with any degree of seriousness that he doesn’t take the Champions League as seriously as the League Cup, is he? Anyway, after a few weeks of football that doesn’t matter to anyone, the SERIOUS BUSINESS of the Champions League returns with what they now call The Round Of Sixteen. Golly. It had better be good. I mean, we’re constantly told about where the clubs’ priorities lay and about how this is Premium Product. No room for error, then, boys. A lot of people across Europe will be paying Premium Product ticket prices to get in, and a good number of sponsors will be paying Premium Product advertising revenues to be associated with it. I think we’re entitled to expect every match to finish 5-4 or 7-7. With four sendings off per match. Unburdened by such expectations, the FA Cup merely trundles on, with the draw for the quarter-finals having been made yesterday. Here’s a quick run-down of who’s playing who.
Manchester United vs Portsmouth: Manchester United’s steamrollering of dismal, dismal Arsenal on Saturday afternoon was extraordinary in that Arsenal’s worst performance of the last ten years managed simultaneously to not even be Manchester United’s best performance of the season. As ever, a lot of it will come down to how “seriously” United take it – will they chuck the stiffs out again, or will Alex Ferguson go overboard and play both Tevez and Rooney? I’m almost literally bursting with excitement and anticipation. Of all the teams that United could have drawn, Portsmouth must have been pretty close to the bottom the list. Harry Redknapp has out-thought Alex Ferguson a few times down the years both at West Ham United and at Portsmouth, but this is a very tall order. You’d fancy them to maybe nick it at Fratton Park, but is a trip to Old Trafford a step too far?
Barnsley vs Chelsea: All of that gargantuan effort to beat Liverpool at Anfield, and this is Barnsley’s reward – a home tie against football’s equivalents of The Phantom Of The Opera. Back in the day, pundits would have stroked their chins, sucked in on their pipes and wistfully said, “Ooh, they won’t fancy a visit to Oakwell at this time of year”, but it’s all different these days. There are some cautious reasons for Barnsley to have grounds for optimism – I still believe that Chelsea are supremely over-rated and that they win a considerable number of Premier League points through outright intimidation. I’m inclined to think that the confidence that Barnsley will have earned from their Anfield result could count in their favour somewhat, here. I wouldn’t be betting any money on it, though.
Bristol Rovers vs West Bromwich Albion: West Bromwich Albion haven’t had a terribly good start to 2008, though when they are playing well, they’re pretty awesome. This is a decent draw for Rovers, whose win against Southampton at the weekend was thoroughly deserved. If the pitch at The Memorial Ground is in anything like the condition that it was in last weekend for the quarter-final, anything could happen.
Middlesbrough or Sheffield United vs Cardiff City: It is (as I think I mentioned on here before) that this is as far as Cardiff City have got in the FA Cup since they won it in 1927, but that is about as interesting as it gets in any way for this match. The Sheffield United vs Middlesbrough match last weekend was as poor a match as I can remember watching in the FA Cup (and, of course, with it being the only replay in this round, it’s guaranteed to be live on the television as well), and the massive applause that the United team got at the end of the match was an indication of how far down Bryan Robson managed to drag their expectations before his sacking last week. What odds on a Bristol Rovers vs Cardiff City semi-final at Wembley in front of 80,000 people?