January 28, 2011

A truly heavyweight round

Posted by Jon Champion on 28/01/2011

Louis Saha celebrates his record-breaking goal against Chelsea © Getty Images

Whatever happens this weekend in the FA Cup, it will have to go some to outdo the drama, incident and upsets of an outstanding Third Round. Events at Stevenage and Crawley will live long in my memory, but the emphasis over the next few days is on heavyweight rather than catchweight contests.

I am really looking forward to Saturday lunchtime’s reprise of the 2009 final between Everton and Chelsea, which you can enjoy live on ESPN. Goodison Park may be a relic of a bygone age, but there are few better venues for a big match.

When the sides met at Wembley two seasons ago, Louis Saha scored the fastest ever goal in an FA Cup final, expunging the name of Bob Chatt from the record books with his intervention after a mere 25 seconds. Contrary to popular belief, Roberto di Matteo’s 42-second effort in a previous Chelsea final appearance was only a modern mark; Chatt’s record had stood since 1895!

Despite Saha’s moment of history, it was Chelsea who emerged victorious in 2009 thanks to Didier Drogba - who has scored in all three of his finals - and Frank Lampard.

Anyone who saw Chelsea score four at Bolton on Monday night would have gained the distinct impression that they are finding their feet again after an awful run. For their part, Everton made their usual sluggish start to the season and find themselves below mid-table in the Premier League.

I feel for David Moyes because of the severe financial restrictions placed upon him. Steven Pienaar and Yakubu have both departed recently and, as yet, there have been no replacements. Tim Cahill’s participation in the Asian Cup has left a huge gap. Even so, Everton at Goodison is a daunting proposition for any opponent. I can see a replay being necessary.

My other FA Cup tie this weekend is Sunday afternoon’s meeting of Fulham and Tottenham. Fulham were unfortunate to lose to a freakish own goal at Anfield on Wednesday and have been showing better form of late.

However, it is the Cottagers’ misfortune to have been drawn against a talented team whose best hope of silverware probably lies in this competition. Tottenham have three plates to spin and, given the complexities of Europe and the Premier League, the one marked FA Cup is the easiest to keep up in the air.

They have a first-team squad of 34 players, meaning two and sometimes three front-line options for every position. What a contrast to Fulham, for whom finding 18 names to put on a teamsheet can sometimes be a challenge.

Having said that, this is the FA Cup. And as the competition has shown so gloriously and so often already this season, those who believe form or pedigree are important are those who end up cursing the intervention of forces unrelated to logic.

January 7, 2011

A tale of two Cities for Sven

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 07/01/2011

Sven-Goran Eriksson could not hold onto his job under the former City owner © Getty Images

Sunday’s live ESPN fixture between Leicester City and Manchester City demonstrates just what makes the FA Cup so special, with plenty of subplots to the third-round fixture. As well as Leicester boss Sven-Goran Eriksson facing his old club, his opposite number Roberto Mancini is doing the same.

Manchester City were going through a strange phase when Eriksson was there under former owner Thaksin Shinawatra in the 2007-08 season; it is a completely different club now. He did a satisfactory, finishing ninth in his solitary season in charge before being sacked. Eriksson wasn’t outstanding, but then neither was he so shocking that he deserved to lose his job. I think he will have a point to prove on Sunday, but from a wider perspective I think he has a point to prove in England generally.

The former England manager’s past few years in management have been tinged by repeated disappointment - with spells at Mexico, Notts County and Ivory Coast failing to bring him the success he desired. Ironically enough, during his time as England manager between 2001 and 2006, fans grew frustrated because he could ‘only’ get to quarter-finals, and no further. England supporters would have been happy with that in the summer. Eriksson will certainly want to make a point to the country at large.

It was a good step for him to to join Leicester at the start of October. The Foxes are a big club, with big ambitions and big potential, and this is his chance to demonstrate again what he is capable of. Eriksson has managed some top clubs across Europe, and of course the England national side as well, so to step down to the Championship would have forced him to swallow his pride, but he has done it, and to good effect so far.

With 35 points from 26 games, they are outsiders for the play-offs and promotion thanks to their improved form under Eriksson. As he is a big name, he can bring in prominent players such as Curtis Davies, Kyle Naughton and Chris Kirkland on loan. Whatever you may think about his record as England manager, the name Sven-Goran Eriksson still has a lot of cache in football. He is a huge celebrity, and that makes people interested and makes players want to play under him. According to most of his former charges he is a great man-manager - David Beckham will only have good words to say about him - so I think he has had a very positive impact on Leicester.

Mancini’s own input to the history of the Foxes is far more brief. He made five appearances for Leicester in 2001 at the tail end of his career, including a 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup. It was a very strange move, but he did leave a mark at the club. Robbie Savage, our studio guest on Sunday, forged a strong bond with Roberto during his brief month at Leicester. He says that even at the age of 36, the current City boss would do things in training that no one else was capable of. He was unbelievably talented.

Robbie also took Roberto under his wing. When he arrived in England from Lazio, Mancini’s English was not very good and Robbie Savage, being the character he is, looked after him and took him out and about in Leicester and showed him the sights. I couldn’t really think of two more different people, but with the two Robbies out in Leicester, I bet the girls were running scared!

According to Robbie, his new Italian colleague introduced him to pasta, though it’s slightly bizarre he wasn’t aware of it already. According to Savage he had never eaten it before Mancini told him, “Come and eat this lovely Italian food!”

Reunions aside, I am really excited about the three games ESPN have this weekend; they are ties that certainly reflect the traditions of the FA Cup at this stage. It is what the FA Cup is all about, the potential for upsets, and Leicester v Manchester City will be no different.