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.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all in football, the sport continues to show that it has the capacity to surprise. In England’s Capital One Cup, the latest reincarnation of the League Cup, there has been no shortage of surprises throughout this season’s competition with a fair amount of controversy thrown in for good measure. After being derided as a “Mickey Mouse” cup over the years, one can argue that, in terms of excitement, the League Cup is actually far more interesting than its big brother, the FA Cup. The 2012-13 League Cup final will see Premier League side Swansea City, set to play in their first major English final (the Swans have ten Welsh Cup triumphs to their name), against fourth-tier side Bradford City who have already disposed of three Premier League clubs so far in this competition.
Swansea City, who hail from Wales’ second city, will become the second Welsh team to reach the League Cup final in twelve months after their arch rivals Cardiff City were beaten by Liverpool in the 2011-12 edition. If Swansea can live up to their billing as heavy favourites then they will create history for Welsh football by becoming the first team from the country to win this particular competition (Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927). The achievement of reaching the final for Swansea City is remarkable given that the club were only promoted to the Premier League just two years ago and under the management of Danish footballing legend Michael Laudrup have continued and expanded on a fine passing game played under his predecessors Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. The Swans have knocked out of the competition, amongst others, defending cup holders Liverpool and European champions Chelsea. The latter game was laden with controversy after Chelsea’s Eden Hazard kicked out at a ballboy during the semi-final, second leg when trying to retrieve the ball in the last stages of the game, which was goalless on the night but stood 2-0 in Swansea’s favour. The ballboy, revealed as 17 year old Charlie Morgan, fell on top of the ball after a tussle with Hazard who subsequently aimed a kick whilst Morgan was lying on the ground. Hazard saw red, both in terms of anger and in the form of the card shown from the referee’s pocket, but went on to speak to Morgan after the game with both parties apologizing to each other in the aftermath. The incident almost overshadowed the fact that Swansea had successfully defended the 2-0 lead gained from the first leg at Stamford Bridge and will go to Wembley hoping to win their first piece of major silverware since their 2010-11 Championship Play-Off victory which guaranteed their promotion to the Premier League.
Bradford City, a Premier League club as recently as 2001, have suffered a downward turn in fortunes since losing their top flight status. As well as three further relegations, the Valley Parade club were placed into administration in 2002. Nevertheless the spirit of the club has prevailed in tough times and the League Two table currently sees Bradford lying in tenth place, five points behind Northampton Town in the automatic promotion spots and just two points outside the Play-Off places. Their cup form has been nothing short of extraordinary, knocking out three Premier League clubs along the way. Penalties were needed in both the fourth round match against Wigan and the quarter-final tie against Arsenal before Bradford put the challenge of Aston Villa to bed by defeating the Birmingham based side 4-3 on aggregate. Should the Bantams win the trophy against Swansea on February 24th it will go down as one of the most remarkable cup triumphs of all time and would give the West Yorkshire club their first major cup win since they saw off Newcastle United in the 1911 FA Cup final.
Anybody who bemoans the fact that none of the giants of the English game have reached the League Cup final really ought to remind themselves of what makes cup football so exciting in the first place. The chance for David to get one over Goliath is an essential part of knockout football. The fact that two clubs such as Swansea and Bradford are in the final should be celebrated as it gives other clubs the opportunity to dream that it could be them one day, especially in an age where money seems to be deemed more important than the silverware. Try telling that to two clubs whose trophy cabinets aren’t quite as full as they are at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, to name but three giants of the game.
In this respect the League Cup tends to be more open than its counterpart, the FA Cup. Apart from Portsmouth FC’s triumph in 2008 and Manchester City’s in 2011, the FA Cup has been won by one of just four teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – every year since 1996. In the same period the likes of Leicester City (twice), Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough have all lifted the trophy as well as the traditional heavyweights of United, Liverpool and Chelsea (Arsenal, surprisingly, haven’t won the League Cup since 1993). Perhaps the fact that the League Cup concludes early in the new year provides motivation for many teams to win that first piece of silverware in any given season. One thing for certain is that the League Cup deserves far more respect than it currently gets in the English game. Swansea and Bradford will no doubt provide one last highlight this season for a competition which is more interesting than its detractors realize.
Manchester United won their fourth English League Cup overall, their third in five years, in front of 88,596 at Wembley Stadium today when beating Aston Villa 2-1. James Milner had given the Villains the lead from the penalty spot after just five minutes but goals from Michael Owen and his later replacement Wayne Rooney scored the winner for United who gained an element of revenge over the Birmingham side who had had the better of their two league encounters earlier this season.
The big news before the kick-off was the decision of United boss Sir Alex Ferguson to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench for the 50th final in this competition’s history and instead play Michael Owen from the start. Martin O’Neill’s Villa side welcomed back captain Stiliyan Petrov who was struck down earlier in the week with a virus that forced him to miss his team’s FA Cup game against Crystal Palace. After the match kicked-off it wasn’t to be long until the first major incident of the afternoon when Gabriel Agbonlahor was pulled down in the United penalty area by Nemanja Vidic, the referee Phil Dowd having no hesitation in pointing to the spot but deciding not even to book the United defender. James Milner stepped up to coolly convert the penalty having sent United keeper Tomasz Kuszczak the wrong way and Villa fans were dreaming of a first triumph in this competition since they defeated Leeds United in the 1996 final. However the defending cup holders had other ideas and it wasn’t long before parity was restored. The usually reliable Richard Dunne made a mistake by giving possession away to Dimitar Berbatov. When Dunne tried to atone for his error by tackling Berbatov he only succeeded in diverting the ball into the path of Michael Owen who justified his start by placing the ball past keeper Brad Friedel and Villa’s lead had only lasted for eight minutes. The rest of the first half saw both teams making chances with Emile Heskey going close for Villa whilst Ji-Sung Park and Berbatov were involved for United who had to see their goalscorer Owen go off the field with a pulled hamstring after 40 minutes, allowing Wayne Rooney to come on in his place.
After the break Rooney made his intentions clear with a shot from distance just a minute into the second half but the resulting shot failed to trouble Friedel on that occasion. Further flowing football from Park and Berbatov followed as United started to up the ante on their opponents with further chances for Michael Carrick and Rooney before the hour mark. After 68 minutes Vidic was shown the yellow card after a foul on Ashley Young which had many Villa fans annoyed as he could’ve and, arguably, should’ve been sent off for the earlier foul which led to the penalty goal. But United didn’t let the booking for Vidic affect them and on 74 minutes the Red Devils took the lead after some great inter-play between Berbatov and Valencia brought a cross from the latter on to the head of Rooney, who stood centre to goal and headed the ball into the top right-hand corner. Four minutes later Rooney had a chance to seal it but his header, again from a Valencia cross, hit the near post on this occasion. United’s only scare in the last ten minutes came from a Villa free-kick from Stuart Downing which whipped in to the box only for the ball to come off Heskey’s head followed by Vidic’s shoulder. As stoppage time was played both teams had a chance with Valencia hitting the sidenetting for United and Agbonlahor’s header in the very last minute going harmlessly wide. The final whistle sounded and Manchester United had retained the cup to ensure that they have a chance to emulate their Premier League and Carling Cup double from last season. Despite the disappointment Aston Villa still have a Champions League place to fight for as well as an FA Cup quarter-final against second tier side Reading FC to look forward to.