The Limey
Friday March 21st, 2008

It's been nearly two weeks since English soccer was rocked by a set of extraordinary results in the FA Cup quarterfinals. But the scenes were so unusual, so unexpected and so refreshing that even now, they still warrant reflection and discussion.

For those not familiar, the FA Cup is England's major knockout competition, and every year, commentators beat the mantra of "the romance of the cup," the hope for and occasional realization of small-town, lower-league teams ousting big city rivals.

The trouble was that as the "Big Four" clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United) became increasingly dominant in the 1990s, so did their hold on trophies. What romance or excitement lay in the FA Cup being won by the same four teams between 1996 and 2007? Then came this year.

Like lava bubbling through a fissure, the third and fourth rounds were a taste of the explosion to come, with Premier League teams dispatched by lower-league competition at an alarming rate.

Coventry obliterated Blackburn 4-1 and Huddersfield topped Birmingham 2-1. Bristol Rovers and Oldham, both two divisions below the EPL, beat Fulham and Everton, respectively. Sheffield United won at Bolton in the third round before dispatching Manchester City in the fourth, the same round that Preston North End emerged victorious at Derby.

Then, the fifth round saw two of the Big Four exit. Arsenal was embarrassed 4-1 at Manchester United, but the biggest shock was Liverpool losing 2-1 at home to Barnsley. The plucky Tykes were then rewarded with a plum quarterfinal home match with Chelsea -- a chance to heroically exert themselves in vain against the EPL maestros and prove that lightning doesn't strike twice. Or so it was billed.

And at kickoff, how confident must Chelsea have been of raising the trophy, given that Portsmouth had surprisingly knocked out Man. United earlier that day? United's inability to score was comical given how close it repeatedly came. Even Sylvain Distin probably doesn't know how he managed to trap the ball on the line despite Michael Carrick trying to force it over.

But fail United did, and a late penalty -- awarded when keeper Tomasz Kuszczak was red-carded for bringing down Portsmouth's Milan Baros -- was conceded by stand-in netminder Rio Ferdinand.

For an hour, Chelsea looked at ease against Barnsley, yet kept failing to gain control. Both sides had been limited to few clear chances, and a goal seemed a somewhat unlikely proposition until Kayode Odejayi's 66th-minute header decided the game. Like Barnsley's opener against Liverpool, it was again a pinpoint Martin Devaney cross that provided the ammunition.

Embarrassingly for Chelsea, Barnsley held on for the last half-hour with ease. By the next day at lunchtime, when mid-table Championship side Cardiff won at Middlesbrough, no one was sure anymore if giant-killing still represented a shock.

The immediate repercussion is that Barnsley faces Cardiff in one semifinal, while Portsmouth plays West Bromwich in the other -- the first time the semis have contained only one top-flight club for exactly 100 years. Team Limey is amused that the greedy FA, after stipulating that the semis must be played at 90,000-capacity Wembley, will now likely have to reduce ticket prices to ensure close-to-capacity.

Playing the semifinals at Wembley removes the magic of the stadium being an exclusive venue for cup finals, while if two northern clubs were matched, a more convenient venue for fans (e.g. Old Trafford) should be used.

In the longer term, the world will continue to spin, and next season, the big clubs will probably again dominate the competition.

But Team Limey hopes that the draw of watching the FA Cup semis and final will be enough for more fair-weather fans to appreciate the less-fashionable sides, teams that, while less heavily marketed and featured in the media, represent the very bedrock of the English game, and who are equally as capable of providing great entertainment. Widening fans focus beyond the Big Four can only be healthy for the long-term future of English soccer.

In the EPL, the world has already moved on. Chelsea quickly returned to normal service by thrashing Derby 6-1 and winning 1-0 at Sunderland before drawing with Tottenham in a 4-4 goal-fest earlier this week.

Arsenal continues to flounder in the league, drawing its last four fixtures, all against mid- to lower-table opposition. Manchester United has taken advantage and now leads the Gunners by three points.

Liverpool is in a rich vein of form in the league, and five straight wins has left it three points ahead of city rival Everton in the race for fourth. The Reds' next three EPL fixtures pit them against Man. United, Everton and Arsenal, matches that will have a significant bearing on both the race for the title and Champions League qualification.

Liverpool's EPL fixture against Arsenal is sandwiched between the home and away legs of its Champions League quarterfinal matchup. The Reds' 3-0 aggregate win over Inter Milan means for the first time in Champions League history, four of the eight quarterfinalists are from the Premiership.

It's fair to say that of the two sides, Liverpool is the team showing best form. However, Arsenal's performance at the San Siro that sent the current holders crashing out was at times brilliant, and demonstrated that the Gunners, like Liverpool, seem more adept playing against the better European teams. Whether the two teams can treat the all-EPL tie as a genuine European tie, and pick up their games accordingly, is another matter.

The Champions League draw last week also set up a likely all English semifinals, with the winner of Arsenal vs. Liverpool facing the winner of Chelsea vs. Fenerbahçe.

Manchester United will fancy its chances against AS Roma while remaining conscious that the Giallorossi, who dispatched La Liga leaders Real Madrid in the previous round, are much improved from the team United steamrolled 7-1 at Old Trafford at the same stage last season. If United, the tournament favorite, gets past Roma, it's going to require a whole fleet of steamrollers to get past the red-and-blue-shirted inhabitants of the Camp Nou.

An array of topics was found nestling in our mailbag this week: club vs. country, Sir Red Face's retirement and the Special One's job plans, amongst other things.

Rodes Lim, a Bolivian in Houston, asks: "Do you feel that the club is eclipsing the country as a bigger priority for footballers today? It seems like the Champions League, UEFA Cup and other club competitions receive more attention and players seem more motivated for them."

In the case of England, yes. That the majority of the starting 11 play regularly in the Champions League should be of benefit to the national team, as the players are experiencing a tournament involving sides better than most national teams. However, the reality is that some players struggle to motivate themselves for the less significant national-team games, especially against poorer opposition.

Fabio Capello faces a huge task in motivating England's undoubted world-class players, who are used to playing at the highest level of club soccer, for a summer of meaningless friendlies.

One player certainly not testing himself against the best players in the world on a regular basis is David Beckham. We agree wholeheartedly with Bill Scott of Boston, who asks: "When Beckham came on in the second half against Croatia [in England's final Euro qualifier last November], he was one of the best players on the pitch. Why is there even a question about his place on the national team?"

Few, Capello included, doubt Beckham's commitment and effort when playing for his country. Fitness and geography are his current problems, although it appears he has done enough in the recent marathon of Los Angeles Galaxy friendlies to earn his 100th cap in next week's friendly against France.

Gregor wrote in asking after a fellow Scotsman: "If Sir Alex Ferguson retired tomorrow, who would you chose as the replacement? I believe it could be a three-horse race between Carlos Queiroz, Martin O'Neill and David Moyes. What other names would you throw into the hat?"

Ferguson has hinted of late that he has another three years at the helm. Present No. 2 Queiroz would offer continuity of Ferguson's regime, and should we read anything into the influx of Portuguese-speaking youngsters at Old Trafford over the last couple of seasons? Queiroz, however, didn't excel when given the top job at Real Madrid, lasting only one season.

Along with the names you mention, you have to throw in former players: Mark Hughes and Roy Keane. The latter is still very much in his infancy as a manager, with the jury still out on his performance at Sunderland.

Perhaps Juande Ramos could feature if he continues the renaissance at Spurs, and from left field, maybe José Mourinho will be still looking for a job in three years time. The hot seat at Old Trafford would prove the ideal platform from which to "kill Chelsea!"

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