Friday, 1 January 2010

The FA Cup – will the world’s oldest and grandest football competition remain unpredictable in 2010?

There is something special about the FA Cup, and even though the likelihood of significant upsets, such as Chesterfield reaching the final in 1997 has diminished, this hasn’t changed. Although only twice in eighteen years has a so-called ‘top four’ team failed to win the competition, I highly doubt many expected the 2007 final to be contested by Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, and Dave Jones’ Cardiff. Indeed, even though my own team, Queens Park Rangers, have an abject recent record in the FA Cup since reaching the 1982 final, the ‘third round weekend’ is still an exciting affair. The selection computer has provided the competition with a whole host of potential upsets and mouth-watering ties, particularly that between arch-rivals Leeds United and Manchester United at Old Trafford. The game is one of five in the third round in which a Premier League side has been pitted against a third-tier outfit, and constitutes the first time the two clubs have met since February 2004. The fact that this is only the seventh time the two have been paired together in the competition, with three of the previous six being semi-final meetings, shows the extent to which Leeds have fallen. However, sitting pretty at the top of League One, unbeaten in fifteen games and featuring one the Football League’s most prolific strike partnerships in Jermaine Beckford and Robert Snodgrass, Leeds have a chance of at least taking the game to a replay. I very much doubt United would relish a midweek trip to Elland Road, and the ferocious atmosphere it would surely provide.

Current FA Cup holders Chelsea are again heavy favourites to lift the trophy, and face a home tie against Watford in order to progress. The Championship side should provide some sort of a test for the Blues, who are without Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, all of whom are away on African Cup of Nations duty. However with thirty three places between the two teams it is unlikely that Chelsea will succumb to defeat, despite their notable absentees. Indeed Watford have two of their own, with Heidar Helguson having returned to QPR, and Premier League loanees Craig Cathcart and Henri Lansbury injured. Given that Chelsea are unbeaten in six league and cup games against Watford, and defeated the Hornets 3-1 last year in this competition, a Chelsea home win is the only obvious conclusion to draw. Meanwhile Liverpool face a potentially difficult trip to Reading tomorrow, in what could prove a huge upset. Whilst Liverpool have won their last two games and Reading are without a win in five, league form counts for little in the FA Cup and caretaker boss Brian McDermott will be hoping for a morale-boosting victory. Interestingly enough it will be the first time the two sides have met in the competition, and despite Liverpool being favourites, Reading will no doubt look to Barnsley’s impressive victory over Rafael Benitez’s side last year as a textbook example of how to claim a high-profile Premier League scalp.

Managerless Bolton will be hoping to avoid an embarrassing home defeat to Lincoln City, in the weekend’s only Premier League against League Two tie. Undoubtedly boss Chris Sutton will have studied the manner in which Wanderers threw away a two-goal lead to fellow strugglers Hull City on Tuesday, and with the turmoil currently surrounding the club perhaps some of the players may take their eye off tomorrow’s game at the Reebok Stadium. With Bolton just four points of the bottom of the Premier League progress in the FA Cup will be in many ways undesirable and take the emphasis off the club’s fight for survival. Although Lincoln have won just once in four games they will certainly hoping caretaker manager Chris Evans takes a dim view of the competition, along with his beleaguered playing staff. Sunderland’s game against Barrow constitutes the widest gulf in class of any of the weekend’s ties, with 98 places between the two clubs. As one of four Blue Square Premier representatives, Barrow will undoubtedly have their work cut out as they attempt to avoid a hiding, but given the recent lack of form displayed by Steve Bruce’s side, they have a hint of a chance. In the only other Premier League against non-league ties, arguably what the FA Cup is all about for many, Stoke City face a home tie with York City. The Yorkshiremen have already pulled off a huge upset in the competition, beating Arsenal by a single goal in the fourth round on 26th January 1985, and given the likelihood of Stoke fielding a weakened line-up, they have a chance to repeat such heroics.

In terms of the competition as a whole I am sure nearly everyone is hoping for anything other than a Manchester United and Chelsea final, and praying for the magic to return to the competition. When the third round weekend arrives we shouldn’t be asking where the magic has gone, or whether fans actually care about the competition. Instead we should be anticipating the prospect of upsets, heroic performances from previously unknown individuals, spectacular goals and unpredictable, perhaps even high-scoring games. Instead of hearing managers state just how much the FA Cup is an ‘inconvenience’ and how ‘unnecessary’ they deem it, I for one would prefer to hear about clubs having their futures guaranteed through one high-profile cup tie, and giant-killing teams whose players train just once or twice a week and spend the rest of their time as builders, students, office-workers, milkmen and such like. The FA Cup shouldn’t be a ‘Big Four’ competition; it ought to belong to all of us. Whilst Sky Sports insists on promulgating the odious fallacy that football began at the commencement of its broadcasting, people can easily forget about such occurrences as Wimbledon’s glorious 1988 success. The decreased status and importance of the FA Cup is for me extremely saddening, and a problem in need of serious attention. In the words of Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, “the FA Cup is a very important competition in England”, and the burden rests upon us to ensure it remains so.

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