Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sweet Sixteen

When the draw for the FA Cup Sixth Round is made tomorrow, it will have a strangely dislocated feel to it, as Manchester United and Arsenal's progress is, somewhat pleasingly, far from assured. The aforementioned two both suffered the indignity of being held at home by clubs that would usually be regarded as below their station. Arsenal's draw with Blackburn Rovers was possibly the worst match that will be seen live on the television this season. Still, there were at least two bonuses for the casual viewer - Arsene Wenger's increasing descent into somewhere between dementia and apoplexy as Blackburn's game plan prevented them from playing their normal game, and Brad Friedel's terrific double save, ten minutes from time.

In the evening, in that 5.15 kick-off spot that still, after all this time, just feels plain, damn wrong, Manchester United were pushed all the way by an impressive Reading team at Old Trafford. Before the match, the BBC's pundits were full of bemusement at Steve Coppell's decision to make several changes from the team that beat Aston Villa the week before. However, Reading held their nerve after Michael Carrick's stunning opening goal goal United, and were well worth their equalizer from Brynar Gunarrsson. Even reserve goalkeeper Adam Federici got in on the act, with fantastic one-handed save from Henrik Larsson just before the end.

This pair of brilliantly inconvenient results led to statements from both Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger stating that replays should be abandoned in the FA Cup. Ferguson actually said that he thinks that this should only apply to teams in the Champions League. Do you see just how far he has become removed from his Scottish, working-class background? These people now seem to think that the rest of English football should bend over backwards to accommodate their avaricious voyages into Europe. Here's something for you to consider: replays are critically important to smaller clubs. The revenue from getting a draw at Old Trafford in the FA Cup would keep a lower division club going for a year. But Alex and Arsene (and Glen Roeder can step forward too, although he probably should look to his own failings, in the form of getting beaten 5-1 at home by Birmingham in the last round, before slinging mud at the greatest cup competition in the world - not an epithet I've ever heard hoisted upon the Champions League, the UEFA Cup or the Intertoto Cup) have forgotten everyone else. They don't care about them and, it would appear, they don't care who knows it.

Well, I've got a suggestion. From next season onwards, if the teams who play in Europe (who, let's not forget, make anything up to £30-40m from their European adventures) draw their matches against teams not playing in Europe, they're out. End of story. There we go. That should end their worries about having to play an extra couple of matches over the course of a season. What could be more entertaining that seeing eleven Premiership journeymen turning up at Ashburton Grove, throwing eleven men behind the ball and preventing Arsenal from playing their supposedly perfect brand of football. Perhaps they could have a little cut-away of Arsene's face as it turns purpler and purpler at such desecration of "his" game.

Elsewhere, Andriy Shevchenko proved again that, if nothing else, he could probably do a decent job in the Championship by scoring Chelsea's final goal in their extremely flattering 4-0 win against Norwich City at Stamford Bridge. With a bit of luck, they might actually face something of a test in the next round. Of course, the fact that I've said that now means that they will almost certainly play Plymouth Argyle in the next round. Plymouth beat Derby and looked impressive in doing so. It's probably too much to hope for them to go too much further, though. The nearest we came to a surprise was West Bromwich Albion's draw at Middlesbrough. As I suspected they might, they matched Boro all the way. It was also encouraging to see a near-full house at The Riverside Stadium. A far cry from the days when they'd struggle to a five-figure turn-out for an FA Cup match against lower division opposition. It looked as if there might be a surprise at Deepdale earlier today, where Preston North End matched Manchester City all the way, before late goals from Georgios Samaras and Stephen Ireland gave City a deserved, if somewhat flattering, win. It may be too early to start calling them "this season's West Ham", but it's food for thought.

Finally, at the time of writing, Spurs are three up at Fulham. Well - I don't think any of us were expecting that. Mind you, there are still ten minutes to play, so they've got plenty of time to lose it.


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