After a week of profound dullness in the Champions League during the week, it was a relief to get back to some proper cup football this weekend. There have been plenty of reasons to criticise the FA Cup this year (though the most common complaint that I’ve heard this season – that the draws for each round have been disappointing – strike me as being somewhat ridiculous. The point of the FA Cup draw is that it is random, right?), but the world’s oldest cup competition is far too venerable to be concerned by such trifling issues, and bounced back this weekend with an absolutely corking set of quarter finals.
First up, on Saturday tea-time, were Manchester United and Middlesbrough. The sighs were audible around the pub that I was watching it in when Wayne Rooney fired United in front (we consoled ourselves by cajoling the people at the table next to us into singing any number of songs questioning the parentage of Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville), but Middlesbrough came back strongly, and thoroughly deserved their equalizer thorough Lee Cattermole, just before the break. It felt as though they were seizing the moment and, when they took the lead five minutes into the second half through George Boateng, I found myself hoping amongst hopes that they might be able to hang on to knock the Devils In Red out. No such luck. Boateng handled in the penalty area, and Ronaldo levelled things up. Still, I’m not altogether convinced that home advantage counts for as much as it used to, so Middlesbrough will go into the replay with some confidence.
For the second week in a row, Spurs found themselves involved in one of the matches of the season. They were fantastic in the first half. They looked like scoring every time they got into the final third of the pitch (though they were helped by remarkably disorganised Chelsea defending). In the second half, however, things started to slide. There were three key moments: firstly Ashley Cole should have been sent off for hauling down Jermaine Defoe when he was the last defender (pointedly, he was substituted not long afterwards). Secondly, there was Petr Cech’s double save. Thirdly, there was Martin Jol’s bizarre substitution tactics. It’s been said before, but Jol is perhaps the worst manager in the Premiership for tactical substitutions. Dimitar Berbatov, Aaron Lennon and Ali Hossam Ghaly were the three best players on the pitch, and Chelsea had just two recognised defenders on the pitch. They should have carried on attacking and tried to kill the game stone dead. As it was, Spurs ended up with an overweight looking Mido giving the ball away with with each of his first three chances, Frank Lampard pulling one back, and a sense of crushing inevitability of what was to come. Spurs couldn’t control the possession at all and, although Defoe rattled the crossbar in the last minutes, Chelsea would have been the only winners had it gone to extra-time. Spurs need a big result in the UEFA Cup on Wednesday night to lift themselves for the replay. It’s probably worth pointing out that they would have settled for a draw before the match, though.
Manchester City supporters will be scratching their heads after seeing their team capitulate yet again, this time at Blackburn Rovers. Rovers are a solid, robust team, and they out-muscled City without too much difficulty. Aaron Mokoena managed a rare double of scoring the opening goal and then getting himself sent off. Perhaps predictably, City couldn’t take advantage of it and Blackburn doubled their lead. The knives will probably now be out for Stuart Pearce. The FA have invested a lot in Pearce, and any further failure on his part would be (somewhat hilariously) an embarrassment for them at least. So it’s not all bad. However, Pearce’s decision to bring in Darius Vassell and Dietmar Hamman for such an important match was questionable, to say the least. Ho hum. Another Premiership coach’s judgement called into question. Still, Blackburn will be difficult to beat in the semi-final, no matter who they draw.
In the final match of the weekend, Watford beat Plymouth Argyle 1-0 at Home Park. “Lucky” doesn’t begin to describe it. Ben Foster won the match for them with a string of fantastic saves – with twenty minutes still to play, Plymouth had attempted 17 shots at goal to Watford’s 3, which says about as much about the pattern of the game as you need to know. There is now the possibility of Foster playing against his real club, Manchester United, in the semi-final. And that tells you about as much as you need to know about the disparity between the top and the bottom of the Premiership.
Last but not least, it was derby weekend in the league. On Friday night, Barcelona came from a goal behind three times to get a draw against Real Madrid, courtesy of a hat-trick by Lionel Messi. Goodness me – he’s quite a player, isn’t he? What was most noticeable about this match was that you could have heard a pin drop in the Nou Camp when Real scored each of their goals. Do Real not receive a ticket allocation for this match, or is the risk of trouble too great for them to accept it? The Old Firm derby resulted in a rare win at Parkhead for Rangers – Celtic were clearly suffering from a hangover from their defeat in Milan of Wednesday night, but the SPL title is still clearly headed to the green half of Glasgow. There was also another result in the Championship that keeps the race to go up wide open, with Wolves beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 at Molineux. Six wins in a row. Has a team ever been promoted having scored less than fifty goals in a season before?