Category Archives: FA Cup

The Best of Times, The Blurst of Times

Do Wolves have any legs left?

Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail.   So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears.  If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency).  Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old.  Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team.  ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out.  Liverpool were already falling down the hill.  And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.

So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.

Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham.  All sit relatively safe.  Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves.  Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points.  For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.

Wide-eyed Woy widing high at WBA

I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe.  Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began. 

Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes.  The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road.  They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.

Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments.  Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air.  If they win the FA Cup final, they are in.  If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in.  Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…

Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight.   The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh.  Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe.  I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse.  But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.

That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop.  Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke.  Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season.  But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club.  It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Bruce wonders where it went wrong

At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot.  They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.

West Ham United sit 19th.  I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive.  But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.

It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about.  Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones.  Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce.  Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror.  The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam.  Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.

In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table.  It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.

By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Carling Cup, FA Cup, Premier League

Hammer Time?

Ba Humbug for West Ham's opposition...

It doesn’t happen very often.  But sometimes, I get it wrong.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to your computer screen, “That’s not true, Brent.  You’re being modest.  Give your head a shake and have a beer on me…”

Alas, faithful readers, I have erred. It turns out that I am not the reliable prognasticator I once thought I was.  And it’s all thanks to a certain Israeli manager who manages a certain East London club.

I had predicted in early December that Avram Grant would be fired by Christmas.  West Ham were at the bottom of the table and were up against the wall.  I said how the holiday swing was going to kill the team — and the career of the gaffer.  Indeed, through December and the first half of January, with the Hammers going 2-3-3, it seemed like curtains for both Grant and the club’s Premier League hopes.

But then a couple of cup runs seemed to give the Irons a spark.  They won their 3rd round FA Cup tie against Burnley 2-0.  Then three days later, they beat fellow Premier League strugglers Birmingham in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.  Since then, they have gone 5-2-3 in all competitions.

It could be that Avram Grant finally has a team that is “too good to go down”.   The team has scored thirteen goals in their last four games.  It’s likely no coincidence that this spurt is due to the arrival of striker Demba Ba (you don’t say his name, so much as let it spill out of your mouth) from TSG Hoffenheim in February.  In the five games he has played, both Ba and strike partner Carlton Cole have each scored four goals.

Parker does his Christian Bale impression...

But the keystone of West Ham’s mini-turnaround has to be Scott Parker.  The midfielder and captain has been bossing the centre of the park, marshalling his teammates both physically and mentally as they have clawed their way out of the relegation zone… at least for the time being.  Many of his teammates — as well as English pundits — say Parker should be named Player of the Year for his pluck in the face of West Ham’s dreadful first half of the season results.

I’m not going to say that they won’t go down.  West Ham are only just above Brum in the relegation zone… and the Blues still have two games in hand.  The Hammers still have to face Spurs, Chelsea and Man City away, as well as play first-place Manchester United at home. Plus, they still have to continue their FA Cup run, facing sinking Stoke again for the second time in a week.

With the Boleyn Ground averaging about 33-thousand fans a season — and the brand spanking new Olympic stadium waiting to be taken over — West Ham is a biggish club that thinks it has a brighter future.  I’d tell you where that future lies… but I’m afraid of being wrong again.  That would be just scary…

Brent Lanthier

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Leeds, Ipswich long for Red Letter Days

Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend

Rewind 10 years to May 2001.  Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat.  Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season.  But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.

The top of the table was awash in a sea of red.  But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue.  Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.

Fast forward 10 years to the present day.  Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001.  Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.

Ipswich Town
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high.  Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again.  But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign,  finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award.  They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.

George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001

But that success turned out to be a blip.  After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process.  They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham.  Since then, they’ve have simply floundered.  The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.

Leeds United
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.  A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.

That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.

Leeds: Too good to go down…

But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride.  Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league.  Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.

The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club.  Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007.  After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.

Cup Success?
One club has rebounded, one has not.  The difference between the two was evident this weekend.   Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup.  Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful.  The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.

Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes.  United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road.  If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.

Ipswich still have a chance at redemption.  New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road.  But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.

Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high.  Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Carling Cup, Champions League, FA Cup

10 Things I Learned This Weekend

What, me worry?

1) Firing your manager before your team faces the defending champions and cup holders = stupid.  Chelsea 7-0 Ipswich Town.

2) Firing your manager before your side faces the team that ripped the World Club Champions a new one = also not smart.   Tottenham 3-0 Charlton.

3) Howard Webb likes to insert himself in games.  Questionable calls against Liverpool this weekend.  Not outrageous… but questionable. 

4) Kenny Dalglish has his work cut out for him at Liverpool, especially since he will be without Steven Gerrard for the next three games.  Blackpool away, Merseyside derby at home, Wolves away… Liverpool have lost to all three teams this season.

5) Arsenal need a keeper.  No kidding.

6) Lionel Messi wins the inaugural FIFA Ballon D’Or as the best player in the world.  No kidding.

7) All of the FIFA Pro XI were chosen from Italian or Spanish clubs.  Stop me when you are sick of me stating the obvious…

Andros Townsend: The Future of the Right

8 ) ‘Arry still hasn’t finalized a deal to bring Becks.  I don’t understand why Spurs would sign him in the first place.

9) Becks and Posh are expecting a fourth child.  Show-offs…

10) El-Hadji Diouf is still a knob.  Discuss.

Brent Lanthier

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Northeast gets Sweet FA from Cup ties

Winning never hurt so good...

The world’s oldest football tournament almost never disappoints, with its share of cracking matches, and sometimes… cracking bones.  Here are some of the highlights from Saturday’s FA Cup fixtures:

– Arsenal will have to travel to the hostile Elland Road for a replay, after barely drawing Leeds United 1-1 at the Emirates.  The only reason the Arse are still alive is because of a penalty given after a Walcott dive.  Kids today…

As if! Diouf can't believe what Neil Warnock said about him

– Speaking of dirty cheaters, El-Hadji Diouf did his best impression of a human heel in Blackburn Rover’s 1-0 win over Queen’s Park Rangers.  According to QPR gaffer Neil Warnock (who is no stranger to jackassery himself),  the Blackburn player stood over Jamie Mackie and taunted him as the young Scot writhed in pain from a broken fibula and tibia.  Diouf should thank his lucky stars it wasn’t Jamie Carragher

– League Two side Stevenage were the giant killers of the Third Round, taking out Newcastle United 3-1.  The Toon Army does not suffer fools — or managers — lightly, but apparently they aren’t as bad as the Stevenage fans.  They get upset even if their team wins!

–  The Newcastle loss means the FA Cup is going nowhere near the Rivers Tyne, Wear, or Tees this season. Sunderland lost 0-1 to Notts County, while Burton Albion beat Middlesbrough 2-1.

– A resurgent Southampton took down a reserve-side Blackpool 2-0.  Saints’ fans taunted Ian Holloway with chants of  “Premier League, you’re having a laugh.”  They should know…

Where Once We Watched King Kenny Play: Liverpool head to Old Trafford with Kenny Dalglish once again at the helm.  The Reds legend takes over from Roy Hodgson, who left after mutual dissent.  Unfortunately for Liverpool, he didn’t take Christian Poulsen, Paul Konchesky or Joe Cole with him…

Also on the Manager Merry-Go-Round:  Ipswich Town head to Stamford Bridge, sans Roy Keane.  They meet a Chelsea team whose manager might be joining Keane in the unemployment line, if the cup holders don’t beat the Tractor Boys, who sit 19th in the Championship.

Manager Merry-Go-Round, Part III: Tottenham Hotspur are hosting a gaffer-less Charlton Athletic  in what will surely be a second-string run-out for ‘Arry’s adolescents.  Look for goals from, um… that guy… off a cross from, uh, that fellow over there…

Brent Lanthier

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Fringe benefits for Spurs

Which way to the pitch again? I haven't been there in ages.

As our ’Arry is so fond of saying, there are no easy games in the Premier League. With the possible exception of Werder Bremen circa late-2010, there aren’t too many gimmes in the Champions League, either.  And being drawn against local rivals Arsenal in your first Carling Cup match isn’t much of a party, not when you’re used to a diet of Port Vales and MK Dons in the early stages of that competition.

So at the risk of jinxing things, it’s fair to say that Charlton’s FA Cup visit to White Hart Lane this Sunday is the first time in a long time that Tottenham have had the luxury of giving a good number of fringe players in their deep squad a chance for some action. And it’ll be interesting to see just who Redknapp kits out for the 3rd round encounter.

The manager-less Addicks, having just pink-slipped former Colchester gaffer Phil Parkinson, sit some 45 places below Tottenham. They’re in the League One playoff zone, but they’ve got a bunch of teams breathing down their necks and they haven’t won in five matches. Seems like a super opportunity for Spurs to showcase some lads whose boots are gathering spider webs, especially those who might be pushed further down the pecking order if a certain Mr. Beckham moves from La La Land to the Lane this month.

After taking maximum points in all three holiday fixtures, and weathering a pair of sending-offs in the process, Tottenham lost at Everton in the week, their first EPL defeat since October. Gareth Bale left with a sore back, and the squad was far from sharp. Time for some R & R, lads. You’ve got Man. Utd and AC Milan on the horizon.

It was back in September’s 4-1 extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup when Redknapp last dug deep into the reserves to field a team. And even though Samir Nasri’s pair of late penalties killed Tottenham off that evening, it was still fascinating to watch youngsters Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore get their feet wet with the first team.

For players like Robbie Keane and David Bentley, whose twittering wife has provided yet another reason for ’Arry’s anger, the Charlton clash could be a chance to get in the shop window and line up transfers away from Tottenham this month. Birmingham have expressed interest in both, but only Bentley (17 million pounds and he can’t even drive the team bus!) looks likely so far.

It’s 99.9 percent not likely to line up this way, but here’s a Tottenham XI (and subs bench) I’d be curious to see take on the visitors from South London this Sunday.

GK Stipe Pletikosa: The Croatian hasn’t featured since the Arsenal defeat (if memory serves) and Carlo Cudicini is out with a sore shoulder. Give Heurelho Gomes a good rest.

RB Vedran Corluka: Banished to bench for long stretches after CL miscue in favour of Alan Hutton. Time to dust him off.

CB Bongani Khumalo: Redknapp might not think South African newcomer is ready for trial by fire but hey, it’s Charlton, not Chelsea. This is like trial by lighter.

CB Sebastien Bassong: Plays the least of THFC’s unfortunately few fit central defenders. Dawson and Gallas could use a break and Kaboul is banned for his recent red card.

LB Benoit Assou-Ekotto: Caulker and the Kyles are all away on loan so we’ll stick with a starter here.

RW Andros Townsend: Newly-sacked Roy Keane (suck it, you thug) didn’t want him at Ipswich so he needs showcasing for a new loan.

MF Sandro: The Brazilian beast has had too few chances since his switch from Internacional. We know what Palacios can do. Let’s have a closer look at this lad.

MF John Bostock: I know, even Hull didn’t want him. Give him a run and maybe someone else will fancy a longer look. The kid needs to play.

LW Niko Kranjcar: The other Croatian lost in the wilderness at Spurs. Plus my made-up team is pretty young and needs some veteran savvy. He’s got it in spades.

FW Roman Pavlyuchenko: The Russian donkey was in fine form at the end of last season when he got some regular playing time. If he finds his feet again, it would be a big boost.

FW Giovanni Dos Santos: Remember him? All kinds of rumours say he’s on the way out. How about one last look before he leaves?

SUBS: GK Heurelho Gomes (in case of emergency), CB Michael Dawson (same as Gomes), FW Robbie Keane (for when Dos Santos disappoints again), MF Jermaine Jenas (can’t hurt), MF Jamie O’Hara (unless his back still isn’t better), MF David Bentley (in case his Brummie deal isn’t done yet) and FW Peter Crouch (for when my Spurs XI go a goal down).

Ian Harrison

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The People’s Game is Back

Many have proclaimed the modern game as lacking passion, characters and the representation of what it really means to us. Strutting superstars devoid of class have divided us, the fans, from the reality television world of the pitch.

As events at Toronto FC have recently shown, the gap between supporter and club has become a huge gulf. Organisations have taken the proverbial “mick” for far too long, pricing fans out of the game they love. None more so than at Manchester United, where the takeover by the Glazer brothers has left a bitter taste in the mouths of so many. Saddled with huge debts and a lack of understanding for the inner workings of football, the buyout caused a huge rift that left to the Green and Gold Brigade, a band of hardy supporters who adopted the club’s original colours to protest the Americans’ manner of running the club.

These efforts are admirable. However, they are a shade of the passion and determination of a group of former Manchester United fans who’d had enough. They were so angry, they decided to form their own team that embodied what they once loved in their club.

The name? FC United of Manchester.

Being an Arsenal fan, I naturally find it difficult to agree and certainly empathise with someone who thought it was once a good idea to follow the Red Devils. But what these supporters have brought back to the game, in the form of their own ‘people’s club’, is the faith and love we once had for our sport.

Basing themselves out of the suburb of Bury, a hotbed of red Mancunian passion, they formed as a semi-professional club. They were shrewd, too. Players were signed on loan from the local big boys, and youngsters were recruited from nearby Rochdale and Stockport for almost next to nothing prices.

And new supporters, sympathisers in the views of this new team, flocked in droves. Average attendances reached 4,500, and a shirt sponsor was banned in the interest of ethics.

Last Friday FC United reached its greatest height so far. Away at Rochdale in the first round of the FA Cup, they scored in the last minute (having thrown away a two goal lead already) to progress to the next round. 3,500 fans ran on to the pitch to celebrate amid wild scenes. It was raw chaos, and I loved it.

It’s corruption in football that led to the existence of this club. But I tell you what, I’d turn a blind eye if the FA announced that instead of the traditional lottery method of deciding who plays who, they’d gone against morality and fixed for Manchester United to play FC United of Manchester in the second round.

We, as fans, would all win.

Sam Saunders

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