Rather than structure this week’s review chronologically, as is the custom, I would like first to invite you readers to participate in the interactive part of our service by voting for which Arsenal player will be ejected from the pitch if/when the Gunners suffer humiliation at the hands of AC Milan this week. Read on to find out what I’m on about.
It was a quiet week for most Premiership clubs, with some, such as Aston Villa, embarking on “team bonding” trips to the likes of Spain where the squad could train hard in the sun, whilst other less fortunate Premiership teams faced a prospect not quite as appealing; with Portsmouth travelling 190 miles or so to — er-hem — sunny Preston and Middlesbrough making the somewhat shorter, if not more appetising, 100 mile trip down south to take on Sheffield United.
The magic of the cup was on full display this weekend, with upsets, last minute goals, dream debuts and a couple of well-deserved hammerings all part of the FA Cup menu.
The FA Cup week-end
Old Trafford was the scene of one of the most one-sided matches of the season, as a slightly under-strength Manchester United side — there was no place for Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs or Scholes in the starting line up — eviscerated a shell-shocked Arsenal team that was admittedly missing a fair few first-eleven players.
Since there is no shortage of Manchester United fans eager to rub it in, I shan’t dwell too much on the events, with the match stats proving eloquent enough: aside from the crushing 4-0 scoreline, Arsenal rustled up just 1 shot on target, to United’s 12 (6 to 21 shots overall), and didn’t manage a single corner throughout the 90 minutes.
If it hadn’t been for some wayward finishing from Wayne Rooney — who finally etched his name onto the scoresheet after a few billion missed opportunities — and Louis Saha, as well as some excellent shotstopping from Arsenal custodian Jens Lehmann, the result might have resembled a rugby score. Who knows what sort of psychological blow the result could afford to Arsenal’s young guns, although it is worth noting that they suffered no such hangover following the Carling Cup defeat to bitter rivals Spurs.
So, onto the title. The title of this article, not the league one. Whilst the manner of the defeat will have upset Wenger and Arsenal fans, for me the most significant part of the whole affair was the aggressive conduct of the Arsenal players when placed in a high-profile losing position; (mis)behaviour that bore an uncanny resemblance to the spat between Adebayor and Bendtner during Arsenal’s 5-1 mauling at the hands of Tottenham and had me questioning, for one of the first times, the maturity of Arsenal’s young team and their ability to avoid implosion and keep tempers from flaring under pressure.
There was a time during Saturday’s match when I could have sworn that United fans were texting in mistaking the match for en episode of “I’m an Arsenal player, get me out of here”, since the Arsenal players seemed determined to show solidarity with Eboue — expelled for a horrible lunge on Nani — by getting themselves sent off by any means possible, with William Gallas’ kick out at the Portuguese the pick of a repulsive bunch. Such actions are reprehensible in all lights, and Wenger would do well to rein in on his side’s antics before they come to assume the unpopularity of Chelsea under Mourinho.
The next biggest FA Cup story came from Anfield, where a beleaguered BenÃtez saw his Liverpool side — missing Torres and Gerrard, although it’d be wholly unfair to blame their absence — totally dominate the game and yet still lose at home to Barnsley. When Dirk Kuyt scores and you still don’t win, you know for sure that things really are going against you.
The Tykes, managed by 37 year old Simon Davey, one of the up-and-coming talents in football league management, were resolute in defence, offered up a vast array of contorted blocks and diversions, and kept plugging away until they got their reward, courtesy of a last-minute strike from centre-forward Brian Howard.
The real star of the show, however, was debutant goalkeeper Luke Steele, who only signed for Barnsley from West Brom midweek thanks to the “emergency loan signing” rule. Not since Jimmy Glass, who famously scored the goal that kept Carlisle in the Football League, has an emergency goalkeeper had such an effect on a team’s fortunes, with Steele responsible for one of the best displays of goalkeeping the FA Cup, or indeed any league, has had the privilege to see in recent years. One stop, from Peter Crouch on the verge of half-time, was nothing short of brilliant.
In other FA Cup action, Bristol Rovers did excellently well to defeat managerless Southampton — going some way to justify the Beeb’s decision to show the match — and cause another cupset, whilst Middlesbrough could only muster up a draw away at Sheffield United, in what was a typically fraught and exciting FA Cup encounter.
All of the other ties, however, went according to league precedence, with Chelsea batting aside Huddersfield 3-1 thanks in no small part to two goals from Super Goals Frank Lampard; Portsmouth garnering a 1-0 victory at Preston due to an injury-time own goal from Darren Carter – David James had earlier saved a penalty for Harry Redknapp’s side;
Tony Mowbray’s West Brom destroying managerless Coventry 5-0 at the Ricoh Arena; and finally, Cardiff dispatching Wolverhampton Wanderers by the scoreline of two goals to nil. With just three Premiership teams set to compete in the quarter-finals, including Manchester United and Chelsea, here’s hoping that one of Chelsea or United gets knocked out — or better still, drawn against one another — so as to spare the British public another 90 minutes of utter boredom at Wembley — we’ve got the Queen’s Speech for that.
The race to the Premiership continues to be about as consistent as Arsene Wenger’s “I didn’t see it” routine is believable.
Stoke City won three games in a week, scoring 10 goals in the process, to leapfrog Bristol City and Watford — both winners on Tuesday, with The Hornets taking just a point away at Charlton on Saturday — at the top of the standings. Meanwhile, any lingering hopes of Queens Park Rangers and their billion pound arsenal making a late charge for the play-offs were essentially quashed as the Hoops lost out 4-2 at home to Burnley, one Andy Cole getting a hat-trick for Owen Coyle’s rejuvenated Clarets.
And finally, the removal of Bryan Robson (Sheffield United) and Iain Dowie (Coventry) from their respective hotseats means that outside of the current top 6 and bottom 3, a staggering 11 of the remaining 15 sides have now had managerial changes this season. No wonder it’s a league of consistency in which anyone can beat anyone!
Ronaldo recovery — fat chance or no chance?
Finally, a word about A.C. Milan’s Ronaldo, who unfortunately tore the ligaments in his left knee in the Rossoneri’s midweek draw against Livorno. Ronaldo, who had managed just 5 appearances for Milan this season prior to the injury, and had been linked with a move to Flamengo in his native Brazil is expected to be out for at least 9 months. Faced with an already deteriorating body, and a chequered psychological past, many are wondering whether the break will in fact spell the end of Ronaldo’s professional playing career. For what it’s worth, I dearly hope that my favourite striker makes a full recovery, even if it is only to go and join the seemingly irrepressible Romário in the Brazilian league.