Five thoughts on FA Cup Semis
Some quick thoughts on this weekend's FA Cup semifinal contestants:
The referee's decision to award Chelsea's second goal in the 49th minute looked like the defining moment of this semifinal. Spurs had increasingly dominated the first half, but when John Terry kept out Rafael van der Vaart's header with his knee -- shortly before van der Vaart's pass missed Emmanuel Adebayor's foot, and the goal, by millimeters -- the signs were not good for Tottenham. When Martin Atkinson decided that Juan Mata's strike had not, in fact, also been blocked on the line by Terry, it seemed confirmed: a hard luck story for Spurs.
By the time the final whistle blew on a 5-1 defeat, however, we'd seen the story of a rapidly unraveling season. The captain, Ledley King, struggled for words after the game, but felt that his side had been "caught out trying to get another goal." That's true up to a point -- Tottenham looked thrillingly outraged for around 10 minutes, in which time Gareth Bale pulled a goal back -- but the delay as David Luiz was carried off seemed to remove the momentum, leaving only the anger. Spurs lost what coherence they had.
King and William Gallas made 34-year-old Didier Drogba look positively youthful. The decision to play Carlo Cudicini in goal was morally sound, given that he'd played throughout the competition this season, but it was only his fifth game in 2012. Brad Friedel would have been a surer pick. A midfield pairing of Scott Parker and Sandro would have looked painfully conservative on paper, but it was there that Tottenham really struggled. Luka Modric barely influenced the game.
Jokes went around that Harry Redknapp was warming up for a new role as England manager with a humbling defeat at Wembley, but he is a far less certain choice given Tottenham's form since Fabio Capello resigned. For Spurs, the end of the season cannot come quickly enough. Missing out on the Champions League places, having been 10 points clear in third place two months ago, is unthinkable. They do not face any club in the top half of the table in the remaining weeks, at least, which is not the case for Newcastle United (in fifth on goal difference alone) and Chelsea (sixth).
This was supposed to be the first of a daunting run of games for Chelsea and the interim manager, Roberto di Matteo. A two-legged Champions League semi-final against Barcelona starts on Wednesday and the visit to the Emirates to face Arsenal next weekend, but they go into it with the taste of emphatic victory on their lips, even if there's a whiff of controversy in the air. Dressing room superstition will transform it into the perfume of fate in any case.
"Wednesday's going to be really tough," said John Terry, having admitted he had blocked Juan Mata's shot, given as Chelsea's second goal, on the line. "But if we can play like we did today then we've got a chance."
"We know Barcelona are the best, but we can't have any fear," said Frank Lampard. "We scored lots of goals and created lots of chances; over the course of the game we deserved to win."
How different RDM's Chelsea looks to AVB's. "When they play well, they're 'experienced'," quipped ITV commentator Jim Beglin. "When they don't, they're 'old'." The Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and the Tottenham defender William Gallas are both 34, but the former rolled the latter with devastating ease to flash a shot past Carlo Cudicini and give the Blues the lead. Lampard, 33, was only initially hampered by Scott Parker. Terry, 31, will have irritated Spurs fans for celebrating the goal that should not have stood, but his was a solid performance.
Di Matteo's record since taking charge of first-team affairs at Chelsea now reads: P12 W9 D2 L1. It is a small sample upon which to get excited about a 75 percent win rate, but it should impress Roman Abramovich nonetheless. There have been moments where the interim coach has done little different to the man he has stepped in for -- Twitter gasped as one when the teamsheet for the first leg against Benfica showed Lampard on the bench -- yet di Matteo's decisions have most often been vindicated.
"That goal is worth £35 million on its own," said Jamie Carragher, grinning down an ESPN lens as the blue stands emptied and the red stands bounced. Except it needn't be considered alone: this was the second time in a week that Andy Carroll (whose own parents must sometimes need to double-check they did not, in fact, christen him The Much Derided) had scored late on to give Liverpool victory out of a game of tit-for-tat farce. What is more, he played very well at Wembley -- that incredible missed header notwithstanding.
"When there is a wee bit of mud flying about that is when you stand up to be counted," said the manager, Kenny Dalglish. "Big Andy has scored the winning goal. He has been battered. We have all been battered. Maybe that is one of the things to get us going, so carry on and batter us." The siege mentality that Dalglish has so carefully nurtured will reach its use-by date eventually, but he will probably make the most of it for a few weeks yet. The papers will not ignore the fact that Liverpool has reached a second domestic cup final this season without being very impressive.
What was most captivating about this game was, as The Sunday Times put it, "the evenness of the struggle." The league table offers neither Liverpool nor Everton much in the way of bragging rights, with a single point separating the Merseyside clubs and at least 10 points between them and sixth place. Liverpool secured a place in next season's Europa League by winning the League Cup, but it is a return to the Champions League that FSG, which this week sacked Damien Comolli, covets most.
The director of football had overseen a considerable spending spree, though Dalglish still calls his side "a work in progress". It has been reported that FSG approached Johan Cruyff for advice, and the former Barcelona sporting director Txiki Begiristain was put forward as the man to spend a mooted $45 million on young (under-21) players this summer to get the youth-to-first-team conveyor belt moving. Players such as Jordan Henderson, who was not unusually peripheral against Everton, have a handful of games and another trip to Wembley in which to show that Liverpool can thrive on what it has, with or without detractors.
After the final whistle, as a lung-busting rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' sounded from the other end of Wembley Stadium, Everton defender Sylvain Distin walked across the rows of remaining Toffees with his hands held above his bowed head. "I take full responsibility," he said, having played the suicidally short backpass that allowed Liverpool to equalize. "I've cost a lot of people a place in the final."
There was no avoiding the sense that Distin's error had changed the game, coming as it did just as you thought Liverpool might never find the creativity to break Everton down. Luis Suarez had been busy without being threatening but, gifted the ball in such space, he was bound to score. "The mistake gave Liverpool impetus," said the Everton manager, David Moyes. "I knew it would be a tight game and I thought we could see it out." This addendum points to another problem: Everton never really went for it.
Beforehand, Moyes was confident that most neutrals wanted to see his side, which has not won an FA Cup since 1995 and last beat Liverpool at this stage of the competition in 1906, triumph. What the manager has achieved in 10 years of minimal financial investment has won numerous admirers -- including Dalglish -- and Everton arrived having gone five games unbeaten, including two impressive wins over Martin O'Neill's rejuvenated Sunderland. This was to be a defining moment; "it's important that we're not standing still," said Leighton Baines. Perhaps such talk precipitated the cautiousness of Everton's play.
Or perhaps having taken the lead thanks as much to Liverpool's comic defending as to the surety of Nikica Jelavic's finish, it was natural that Everton would look to "see it out". Yet for a long while this game was there for the taking. The muted contributions of several important players -- Baines and Darron Gibson, for instance, lacked their usual ambition -- combined with Royston Drenthe's absence encouraged the sense of an opportunity missed. Liverpool fans were nervous about third-choice goalkeeper Brad Jones -- "Holy Comolli, we're down to one goalie," read the banner -- but he was barely tested.
Liverpool and Chelsea were due to meet at Anfield in the Premier League on May 5, but will be at Wembley for the FA Cup final instead. Their cup meetings over the past five years or so have thrown up a number of thrills as well as controversies (think Luis Garcia's phantom goal in the 2005 Champions League semi-final, or Drogba's Rafael Benitez-inspired performance three years later), but a minority of Chelsea supporters have given the tie renewed tension.
They ruined the silence held in remembrance of the Hillsborough disaster, some reportedly shouting "murderers", before the referee blew the whistle around halfway through what should have been a minute's silence. Chelsea reacted swiftly, saying that it was "extremely disappointed that a very small minority of fans embarrassed the club today by not honoring the moment's silence before kickoff," and has promised to help identify those responsible. Still, a fractious day in north London awaits.