Everton are in better form than Liverpool; Chelsea should beat Tottenham. But let’s hope matches are more than sideshows
Remember the FA Cup? There was a time when the week leading up to the semi-finals would find the sports pages and airwaves talking about little else. Now the Cup is an afterthought and this weekend’s semis amount to little more than a pause for breath amid the main events in the Premier League and the Champions League.
To be sure any one of the four participants would be delighted to hold the trophy aloft at Wembley on 5 May but at this stage only Everton can be sure of a triumph undiluted by disappointments elsewhere. For Liverpool, their opponents today, winning the Cup would be merely a consolation for losing their way in the Premier League when they had hoped to make a serious challenge for a Champions League place.
Tottenham would regard taking the trophy to White Hart Lane for the ninth time a modest comfort should they fail to finish in the top four and will be hoping that when they meet Chelsea on Sunday the latter will find it hard to avoid being distracted by thoughts of meeting Barcelona in the opening leg of their Champions League semi-final on Wednesday.
The dramatic potential of this season’s FA Cup semi-finals has not been helped by their kick-off times. Since Merseyside derbies usually take place around lunchtime the idea of Everton and Liverpool starting at 12.30pm on a Saturday is not that outlandish. But putting the Chelsea-Spurs game on at 6pm on a Sunday is perverse in the extreme and, as ever, places the television schedules before the travelling fans.
All right, Sky are screening Manchester United’s now-crucial encounter with Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon and ITV want a clear field for their match. But an FA Cup semi-final should not have to fight for viewers with The Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation. At least the final has managed to retain a three o’clock kick-off, for the moment anyway.
It is to be hoped that both of this season’s semis produce enough drama to hold everybody’s attention, however fascinating the culinary antics of the hirsute bikers turn out to be. FA Cup semi-finals tend to be quickly overtaken by the buildup for the final itself, which used to start almost immediately after the final whistles, but the tournament could do with a lift this weekend which the participants are well equipped to provide.
The teams alone should be enough to remind football what the FA Cup ought to be about, namely a lively foxtrot to set against the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow of the leagues. Over the last 20 years the Premier League has steadily upstaged the Cup to a point where the latter is often regarded by managers as a chance to rest players for more important games at the top or bottom of the table.
At least Kenny Dalglish, clearly thinking of Saturday’s semi-final, paid the Cup the compliment of making six changes for Tuesday’s match at Blackburn. It is hard to recall a Liverpool manager ever approaching an FA Cup semi-final needing a boardroom vote of confidence to dampen down speculation concerning his future in the job and Dalglish could do with another trophy this season. Winning the Carling Cup on penalties against Cardiff City does not amount to much by way of mitigation.
That said, the neutrals might prefer to see Everton in the final if only because the management skills of David Moyes deserve the chance of a tangible reward for getting results in spite of Goodison’s present penury. Everton appear to be in better, more confident form than Liverpool but Steven Gerrard did for them with a hat-trick a month ago and while Luis Suárez is the best exponent of the pratfall since Norman Wisdom he is also a world-class matchwinner.
On present form Chelsea should get past Harry Redknapp’s leggy-looking Spurs if they do not have Lionel Messi on their minds while they are coping with Luka Modric. A repeat of the recent scoreless stalemate at Stamford Bridge is a possibility, with penalties to follow.
Just so long as the games provide something to remember other than the results. In 1990, a year after Hillsborough, an FA Cup badly in need of a fillip threw up two marvellous semi-finals in which Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace shocked Liverpool and Dalglish 4-3, Alan Pardew getting the winner, and Oldham held Manchester United to 3-3 (before losing the replay 2-1).
The Cup really was the jewel in the Football Association’s crown that weekend. A little of the old lustre would not go amiss now.