Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the kerfuffle over Manchester United having now had thirty-eight consecutive FA Cup matches shown live on the television is that it took thirty-eight matches for many people to really notice it. There was considerable anger this weekend over the fact that Manchester United’s home match against Fulham was selected by ESPN as its choice of match for Saturday evening, but did nobody really notice this phenomenon until yesterday? Did nobody realise at, say, twenty, twenty-five or thirty matches that the biggest box office draw always gets chosen, and probably above everybody else? For all the commercial pressures that they are under, the broadcasters – and their lack of imagination – got what they deserved on Saturday, a dreadful match between Manchester City which was won with five minutes to play by Pablo Zabaleta’s header and ninety minutes of one-way traffic at Old Trafford which effectively ended as a contest with the award of a penalty for the home side after ninety seconds.
If Saturday afternoon had a retro feel to it, then this was likely in no small part because the main talking points were taking place away from the prying eyes of the live television cameras. The match that we might have expected to have been one of the live television choices for the weekend, Brighton & Hove Albion vs Arsenal, played out like a tug of war and ended in Arsenal sneaking through by the odd goal in five, while Wigan Athletic swerved a banana skin for the second match in a row by winning by the only goal of the match away to non-league Macclesfield Town and Everton were cut it similarly fine in winning by two goals to one away to Bolton Wanderers, matches all which might have easily have swung in the opposite direction, and also matches which might easily have been selected by the broadcasters to have been shown live on the television.
Interest in the FA Cup from the Third Round on has come to be defined by two things: have Manchester United/Manchester City/Chelsea/Arsenal/Liverpool/Spurs lost, and have there been any surprise results? There were few surprises on Friday night, as Millwall extended Aston Villa’s season-long sporting interpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream by beating them at The New Den, whilst on Saturday eyebrows were to be raised in the direction of Carrow Road and Loftus Road. Luton Town may have won the League Cup a quarter of a century, but their subsequent plummet into non-league football means that there will be a certain number of red faces around the Norwich City training ground this morning. A lone goal from Scott Rendell with ten minutes to play was enough to make Luton the first non-league club to beat top division opposition in the FA Cup in twenty-four years. Meanwhile at Loftus Road shortly after the end of their humiliation on Saturday afternoon, Harry Kedknapp was holding his team responsible for their abject performance. “Surely you can beat a team from two divisions down,” said Redknapp, apparently oblivious to the fact that as the manager, you know, he himself might be responsible for the team selected and the subsequent result. All that Queens Park Rangers supporters now have to look forward for the remainder of this season is a dour struggle to avoid relegation. And Harry Redknapp should be taking a little more responsibility for that, rather than shovelling the lion’s share of the responsibility for it onto his players.
If Saturday was a mixed bag, though, Sunday was a timely reminder of all that we hold most dear about cup football. At Griffin Park at lunchtime, Chelsea’s players found themselves dropped into a most unfamiliar set of surroundings. Chelsea and Brentford may only be separated by a few miles, but this was the first time that the two clubs had played a competitive match since 1950 and, on a lumpen pitch, in front of packed stands that almost seem to hang over the pitch and with something of a point to prove, Brentford gave the European champions an almighty scare, taking the lead twice before being pegged back thanks to a late goal from Fernando Torres. The Bees may have missed their opportunity – though, under the managership of Rafael Benitez, one can never take anything for granted – but they will at least have the consolation of making some significant money from the replay, not least because the dearth of drawn matches elsewhere makes it likely that this replay will be shown live on the television.
Where Chelsea managed to claw their way back into their tie at Brentford, Spurs couldn’t manage the same at Elland Road after falling two goals behind to a Leeds United team which seemed to recognise their lack of a plan with regard to offside and took full advantage of it. There were two other significant problems with the Spurs team yesterday afternoon. Firstly, Andre Villa Boas sent out a starting eleven with no recognised strikers, with Emmanuel Adebayor in South Africa for the Africa Cup of Nations and Jermain Defoe injured. Secondly, to an extent it felt as if the players that the manager did send out for this match felt as if all they had to do was set foot on the pitch in order to win the match. None of this, of course, should detract from the strength of the Leeds United performance, and in particular that of Ross McCormack, whose goal turned out to be enough to separate the two teams. It is displays like this which sum up current frustration of being a Leeds United supporter. What might this team have been capable in the Championship had Ken Bates not systematically have sold its best players over the last few years or so?
Considering their polished performance against Norwich City in the Premier League last weekend, Liverpool might have expected their FA Cup match at Oldham Athletic to have been a mild distraction from their attempts to haul themselves in an upward direction from the mid-table stodge of the Premier League. Boundary Park, however, can be hostile terrain for players used to the finer things in life, and Liverpool came unstuck against a League One side that had taken just one point from their previous eight games. Down by three goals to one, the introduction of Steven Gerrard breathed a little life into a team that had previously been playing as if the players had only been introduced to each other in the dressing room prior to the match, and had his shot in stoppage time dropped in rather than thudding down off the crossbar we might have been anticipating – for Oldham’s reward for their win is a home Fifth Round match against Everton – a Merseyside derby in the next round of the competition. It didn’t though, and the two Oldham goals that fell just either side of the half-time break proved to be enough to see Paul Dickov’s – who has been clinging onto his job by his fingernails of late – team through to the next round. On such slender margins are matches frequently decided, and this time the roll of the dice went against the Premier League club. We’ve had seven days of gripping cup football. Back to the grind of the league this week.
And that was the weekend that was.
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