Goliaths go down
Finally, real FA Cup shockers; Liverpool charges on
Posted: Friday March 21, 2008 11:06AM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 11:56AM
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.