It had already been a fantastic week for cup shocks in England, with Bradford City and Swansea City both reaching the League Cup final, but this weekend saw the FA Cup provide further upsets for some of football’s big names. The same can also be said of the Scottish League Cup where favourites Celtic FC were knocked out at the semi-final stage by St Mirren. In Northern Ireland there would be cup celebrations for Cliftonville FC who convincingly defeated defending title holders Crusaders FC 4-0 in the League Cup final on Saturday.
The FA Cup could be accused of having surpassed itself in terms of shocks this weekend with the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Norwich City going out to lower league opposition. Seven times winners Liverpool were the biggest casualties of the round losing 3-2 to League One (third tier) side Oldham Athletic whose progression to the next round has guaranteed them a home draw with Liverpool’s local rivals Everton. Matt Smith (2) and Reece Wabara scored the goals for Oldham whilst Luis Suarez and Joe Allen replied for the visitors in a match which effectively ruined Liverpool’s season. Out of both cups and lying in seventh place in the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers’ men can at least now concentrate on trying to climb the league table.
Tottenham Hotspur also lost on Sunday away at Championship (second tier) side Leeds United at Elland Road. Luke Varney and Ross McCormack scored the goals which gave Leeds a 2-0 lead which was later halved by Clint Dempsey. Tottenham, however, were unable to equalize and Leeds held on to seal a fantastic win and will be rewarded with an away trip to Premier League champions Manchester City in the fifth round. Chelsea almost made it a hat-trick of cup shocks on Sunday but were able to secure a late draw against Brentford FC. Fernando Torres’ 83rd minute equalizer was enough to give the Blues a second chance and, should Rafael Benitez’s side prove successful in the replay, will see them travel to Middlesbrough in the next round.
Amongst the other FA Cup games over the weekend struggling Aston Villa went out of the competition. Just three days after their elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Swansea, Villa were forced out of the FA Cup at the hands of League One side Millwall FC who defeated the Premier League side 2-1 on Friday night. Millwall’s reward for progressing is a trip to the only non-league side left in the competition, namely Luton Town. Luton narrowly defeated top flight club Norwich City 1-0 away at Carrow Road with Scott Rendell’s goal proving the difference. Elsewhere in the competition some of the big boys managed to get through to the next round unscathed. Record winners Manchester United easily saw off Fulham FC 4-1 at Old Trafford whilst Manchester City edged past Stoke City 1-0 at the latter’s Britannia Stadium. Arsenal did suffer a couple of scares, going behind twice, before persevering 3-2 away at Championship club Brighton and Hove Albion.
The 2012-13 Scottish League Cup final will see Heart of Midlothian play against St Mirren following another exciting round of knockout action north of the border. Saturday saw Heart of Midlothian, currently holders of the Scottish FA Cup, play against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road, the Edinburgh home of Hearts’ big rivals Hibernian FC. Andrew Shinnie (Inverness) and Michael Ngoo (Hearts) traded strikes as the game finished 1-1 with thirty added minutes of extra-time unable to separate the two sides. A penalty shoot-out then saw Inverness’ Phillip Roberts miss the crucial spot kick as Hearts went through 5-4 on penalties to leave the Jambos hoping of lifting their first League Cup title since 1963. Sunday saw another exciting semi-final at Hampden Park where Celtic FC have made a bad habit of losing crucial cup matches in the last couple of years. Following defeat to Kilmarnock in the final of last season’s tournament, Celtic went out at the hands of St Mirren today to leave coach Neil Lennon wondering just when he’ll enjoy some more luck in Scottish domestic knockout competition. Esmael Goncalves gave St Mirren the lead after 8 minutes but Gary Hooper equalized for the Hoops on the stroke of half-time. In the space of five second half minutes, however, St Mirren would set themselves up for a famous win thanks to a Paul McGowan penalty (64 mins) and a wonder strike from Steven Thompson (69 mins). Celtic did pull one back through Charlie Mulgrew’s stoppage time effort but the damage had already been done for Lennon’s men. St Mirren will hope it will be third time lucky for them in the League Cup final having lost in their two previous final encounters in 1956 (v Aberdeen) and 2010 (v Rangers).
In Northern Ireland’s League Cup tournament Cliftonville FC won the trophy for the second time in their history on Saturday following a convincing 4-0 win over 2011-12 winners Crusaders FC. Goals from Diarmuid O’Carroll, Joe Gormley (2) and Ryan Catney saw off the defending title holders and gave Cliftonville their first success in this competition in eight years.
Should football pause for Christmas? Give me a break! Football in the UK is as much of a tradition as the Queen’s Speech, Mince Pies and Santa Claus and this weekend has been no exception. With further football to come in the next couple of days “Stoppage Time” takes a look back and looks forward to the action to come in our English and Scottish football festive round-up.
English Premier League leaders Chelsea got the ball rolling in their tough away tie at Birmingham City. Both sets of Blues had their chances to win but, in the end, perhaps a 0-0 draw was a fair result. The next game to finish was the important six pointer at the bottom of the table between West Ham and Portsmouth. The “Hammers” claimed a 2-0 home win over a Portsmouth side who had beaten Liverpool just seven days earlier. After the drama surrounding Mark Hughes’ sacking it was the football that took centre stage as Manchester City, under new coach Roberto Mancini, claimed a comfortable 2-0 win against Stoke City thanks to Martin Petrov and Carlos Tevez. In the other games Liverpool got back to winning ways but only after their opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers had Stephen Ward sent off on 52 minutes. Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun scored the goals in a laboured 2-0 victory. Everton left it late to claim a point away at Sunderland. Marouane Fellaini scored with five minutes left on the clock to give Everton a share of the points after Darren Bent had given the Black Cats an early lead. The remaining three games finished as draws, a London derby between Fulham and Tottenham ended goalless whilst two clashes between North West clubs saw Burnley v Bolton and Wigan v Blackburn finish 1-1. In the Scottish Premier League Glasgow Celtic kept up their pursuit of champions and league leaders Glasgow Rangers with an 2-0 win at home to Hamilton. A last-minute strike from Niall McGinn made sure of the points as Celtic found it hard to finish their opponents off. Dundee United title hopes have dipped in the last couple of games. A 3-0 home defeat to Rangers was followed with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Kilmarnock. Csaba Laszlo’s Hearts side kept up their recent upturn in form by beating Falkirk 1-0 away to lift them into fifth place. In the final match of the day newly promoted St. Johnstone claimed all three points in a 3-1 win at Motherwell. After struggling at the bottom of the table for many weeks the Saints now lie seventh in the SPL.
Although only a few matches were played on this day they all had some significance at the top of the table. In Scotland Hibernian were hoping to keep up a title challenge by beating champions Rangers and after twelve seconds the Edinburgh side were in dreamland as Anthony Stokes gave the home side a dramatic lead. However the champions came back after a difficult first twenty minutes. Rangers’ Kenny Miller (pictured) equalised after 21 minutes and top scorer Kris Boyd gave them the lead eight minutes before half-time. Any hopes of a Hibs comeback after the break were dashed as Nacho Novo increased Rangers lead on 53 minutes and Miller got his second of the game after 66 minutes. With no further scoring Rangers boss Walter Smith was delighted that his charges had opened up a four point lead over nearest challengers Celtic with Hibernian a further four points behind. In the English Premier League Arsenal were finding it difficult to break down a dogged Aston Villa side who have high hopes of a top four finish. However the introduction of Cesc Febragas in the second half proved the difference as his 25 yard free-kick on 65 minutes was followed by his second nine minutes before time. In the act of scoring his second the Spaniard injured himself and had to come off but the impact had already been made. Vassiriki Diaby made it 3-0 for the Gunners in stoppage time and Aston Villa’s hopes of beating all of the Big Four this season were temporarily halted (they’d already beaten Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United so far). At the KC Stadium champions Manchester United, despite Wayne Rooney giving away a penalty, were too strong against their opponents Hull City. United had the lead at half-time thanks to a stoppage time Wayne Rooney strike. After the break the United star’s pass back was significant in United giving away a penalty, converted by Craig Fagan to restore parity on the hour mark. After that it was Rooney who made the telling difference in the latter stages of the match. Rooney’s low cross into the box on 73 minutes was turned into the net by Hull City defender Michael Dawson to give United a 2-1 lead and the game was sealed after Rooney set up Dimitar Berbatov for Uited’s third goal. The win lifted United up to second place, just two points behind Chelsea, but Arsenal are two points behind United with a game in hand.
Today sees six games in the English Premier League with the most interesting being the West London derby between Chelsea and Fulham at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti’s men can’t afford too many more slip ups if they are to win their fourth championship title. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham go into the game unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions including a 3-0 demolition of Manchester United. The other fixtures are Tottenham v West Ham, Blackburn v Sunderland, Everton v Burnley, Stoke City v Birmingham City and the late kick-off at Molineux where Wolverhampton plays against Manchester City.
In England Aston Villa will hope to get over their drubbing at Arsenal by attempting to the double over Liverpool who have failed to win two matches in a row in the Premier League since September. The other game sees Bolton Wanderers and Hull City in a match that will have importance in the bottom half of the table. In Scotland there is just one game as Aberdeen play Falkirk at Pittodrie.
Two of the title contenders, Manchester United and Arsenal, will hope to increase their championship hopes with a win against Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth respectively. There are five matches in Scotland, the best of which involves champions Rangers at home to fourth place Dundee United. Celtic won’t want to lose points in what appears an easy game against second bottom Kilmarnock. The other games are St. Johnstone v Hibernian, Hamilton v St. Mirren and Hearts v Motherwell.
“The most exciting league in the world” is a phrase that’s become synonymous with Sky TV’s presentation of the Barclay’s Premier League, such is the TV station’s devotion to hyping up even the most dullest of matches. Although there are great players and teams in the league, just how true is it to say that the English Premier League is “the most exciting league in the world”?
One couldn’t doubt the quality of the players on show in the Premier League, on the contrary it’s true to say that with players such as Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney and Dider Drogba to name but three that the English Premier League contains some of the finest players in the modern game. However this discussion focuses on the concept that the league is branded as much about ‘entertainment’ as much as it is ‘sport’. When one thinks of last day cliffhangers they are very few and far between in the Premier League. As for the multitude of teams capable of winning the title in any given season then you can usually count them with a couple of fingers on one hand. If this criteria were applied to football then the English Premier League (EPL) would be no better than being a glorified Scottish Premier League (SPL).
When people in England talk about the SPL they will patronisingly refer to it as a ‘pub league’ and lament the fact that only two teams, Rangers and Celtic (the Old Firm), have any chance of winning the title. But it’s usually the case that only two teams have any chance of winning the EPL too, Manchester United and A.N. Other. The main challenger to United may change from time to time but it’s hardly any more exciting to see the Red Devils win title after title than it is to see two supposed ‘pub teams’ in Rangers and Celtic win title after title north of the border.
The only thing that maintains a sense of quality in England is the notion of the ‘Big Four’ (i.e. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) and their regular appearances in the UEFA Champions League, European football’s showpiece tournament, helping to preserve English football’s position in the UEFA Co-Efficient table (a place in the top three of this table guarantees a nation four places in the Champions League). It seems increasingly the case, however, that some teams are happy just to finish in a top four spot – ‘fourth is the new first’ if you want – and secure the riches that the Champions League provides. In the case of the Old Firm at least they have been punching above their weight in European competition. Regular Champions League appearances coupled with two UEFA Cup finals, Celtic in 2004 and Rangers in 2008, has seen the SPL maintain a respectable standing despite its lack of wealth and international exposure. There have been examples in recent years of English teams qualifying for the Europa League (ex-UEFA Cup) then trying as hard to get knocked out of a competition that they’ve tried even harder to qualify for. When some English club managers talk about finishing in the top four rather than winning a trophy then it seems to strengthen the view that most clubs in the EPL have very limited ambitions.
Another thing which adds to the lack of real excitement in the overall picture of the English Premier League is the absence of any final day cliffhangers at the top of the table. There may be some exciting finishes at the bottom of the table but the lack of any meaningful matches in respect of the championship means that the EPL is not always so worthy of its hype. You would think this would worry the people at Sky TV seeing as they talk about “the most exciting league in the world” as if its an unquestionable truth. Despite the dominance of the Old Firm in Scotland at least there have been exciting climaxes on the final day in three of the last five seasons including the last two in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Since the English Premier League’s formation in 1992-93 there have been only two final day pieces of drama to witness: the 1994-95 season when Blackburn Rovers beat Manchester United to the title despite losing their final game against Liverpool and the 1998-99 season where Manchester United saw off a spirited Tottenham Hotspur performance at Old Trafford to beat nearest challengers Arsenal to the title by one point. All of the other Premier League titles have been decided on or before the penultimate matchday.
One may argue that it’s too early to write off the English Premier League as a contest but then there are teams such as Liverpool and Arsenal whose title challenges have been written off as early as December after some bad results therefore leaving Manchester United and Chelsea as the only realistic challengers. The irony is that the EPL doesn’t look as entertaining from a competition point of view as its northern neighbour at the moment where the Old Firm have a challenge from Hibernian and Dundee United. For those of you who enjoy a regular two-horse race then “the most exciting league in the world” may just be your best bet for the season.