In recent memory I can’t recall a more competitive or exciting Premier League season than the one we are currently gripped by. Just one look at the league table tells you a thousand stories but it also hides a thousand more. The media in England is very good at advertising the Premier League, constantly reminding fans around the globe that they must watch the games as no matter who is playing who anything is possible and nothing should be missed. In previous seasons this has been true to an extent, but never more so than throughout the season we have seen so far. The bookmakers must be rubbing their hands with glee as punters fill in their weekend accumulators struggling to choose clear winners, especially among the so called Premier League elite clubs. The games continue to come thick and fast as we move deeper into the second half of the season as the race for the title becomes clearer and the clubs at the wrong end of the table either start to put together the great escape or continue the slide towards the Championship trap door.
Thankfully for all involved the pressures of the Premier League and Football League are off this weekend as we welcome the Fourth Round of the FA Cup with Budweiser. I mention the sponsor as I find it unbelievable that earlier in the previous year there wasn’t even a sponsor interested in the world’s most famous cup competition. The FA Cup has enjoyed somewhat of a revival over recent years. As the league has become more and more competitive the strive for a piece of silverware has been relocated more realistically for most clubs to the Carling Cup and FA Cup competitions. Not only does the FA Cup offer the chance of claiming a major piece of domestic silverware it also offers a direct route into much needed European competition the following season. But for supporters in England the FA Cup offers something much more special; the chance to go to Wembley for the final. I think my generation was probably the last who grew up with daydreams of holding aloft the FA Cup trophy at Wembley in front of thousands. For the generations that have followed the FA Cup has fallen well behind the Premier League and the Champions League in terms of prestige and importance. Nevertheless supporters from clubs of all levels dream of that day at Wembley, seeing their club play on the big stage with a major trophy at stake. The magic of the FA Cup still lies in the fact that any club registered with the English FA can enter and anyone can play anyone as teams progress through the rounds. Even though teams at the lower end of the Football League and clubs from non-league football haven’t got much realistic hope of making it all the way to the final, they enter dreaming of being drawn against the biggest teams in the country. You ask those Oldham Athletic fans who travelled to Anfield in the previous round if the magic of the FA Cup is still alive.
Following the explosive Third Round earlier in the month, this weekend’s Fourth Round has all the ingredients to be just as exciting and unpredicatble giving all the clubs involved the chance to get that one step closer to Wembley. The action starts on Friday night as Premier League high flyers Tottenham travel the short distance to Championship side Watford before the action concludes with the draw for the Fifth Round of the FA Cup following the all Premiership clash between Arsenal and Aston Villa at the Emirates.
The stand out tie in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup is relatively obvious as Manchester United travel to Anfield to face Liverpool for the first time since Luis Suarez picked up an eight game ban for racially abusing United’s Patrice Evra. As a result the build up to the game has been clouded by action off the pitch. The media have placed a huge amount of emphasis on not only how the two rival teams will square up on the pitch but also on how the incidents during last October’s league clash between the sides will affect the supporters of both clubs. Liverpool and Manchester United both have a responsibility to inform their own fans of whats expected of them and how they should behave in representing their football clubs. It remains to be seen if the two managers will come together before the contest on Saturday to diffuse any simmering tensions between the sides, but knowing the history between the sides Dalglish and Ferguson should at the very least place the emphasis on the game rather than what has happened before.
The FA Cup has given the sides a chance to show they are united in the fight against racism not only in football but full stop. There is always going to be a fierce rivalry between the two clubs and rightly so, Liverpool vs Manchester United is English football. No other game better illustrates why English football is so popular around the world. Passion, desire, intensity, talent, skill, commitment, dedication, speed, the sublime and the terrible. But with something that is bigger than football the clubs have a responsibility to set an example and show that although they are rivals, they are united in and support the fight against racism. As well as the chance to progress to the next round of the competition Liverpool should use the game to build bridges and mend fences of their dramatically affected reputation.
Liverpool will come into the weekends game on the back of a tough Carling Cup Semi Final Second Leg against Manchester City so I expect there to be changes to Kenny Dalglish’s team. The goalscoring burden is expected to fall again on the faltering Andy Carroll and Dirk Kuyt with Suarez still serving his suspension. Manchester United have a well documented list of injures at present, not helped by Phil Jones, Rafael and Nani all picking up knocks in Sunday’s win at the Emirates. With Rio Ferdinand likely to return expect a side featuring more experience than youthful exuberance with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes also expected to feature. The game offers both clubs the chance of winning a major cup this season so I expect both to field strong sides from the players they have available in a congested part of the season. The winners of this North West derby will look at the teams remaining in the cup at the end of the weekend and feel that they are not far from adding another trophy to the cabinet.
Kicking off just forty-five minutes before the game at Anfield, QPR host a transitional Chelsea team at Loftus Road with the media microscope focused fully on Chelsea captain John Terry. As with the game at Anfield the build up to this game has concentrated on an incident which occurred the last time the two sides met in the league. Following that game QPR defender Anton Ferdinand reported John Terry over alleged racist comments the Chelsea man made to him during a fierce contest which also saw two Chelsea players sent off. With Terry’s trial scheduled for February 1st, the managers of both clubs have called for calm with Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas commenting;
“Regarding the fans, it is our responsibility as a club to calm the situation around the game and also to put on a message for the media as you can do excellent work in calming things down and everyone can have an impact for just another game of football”.
Wise words from the Chelsea boss which transcend to the game between Liverpool and Manchester United in the call to concentrate on football and turn these negative situations into positive ones. The main focus before the game however will be on the reaction of both players when they come face to face for the customary handshake before kick-off. For the overall good of the game I believe that Ferdinand should shake hands with Terry as Terry can only be seen as innocent until he has been proven guilty. But then again I am not stood in Ferdinand’s boots so I feel the decision should be left with him to do what he feels right.
The game itself offers both clubs the chance to put recent difficulties in the league to one side and play without the level of pressure the Premier League campaign brings. QPR will fancy their chances against a stuttering Chelsea side, especially with the new wave of enthusiasm brought into the club with the appointment of new manager of Mark Hughes who will hope to have a couple of new signings on display. Chelsea, still minus Drogba, return to action following a week of warm weather training in Majorca. I think the thought of an early game on a bitterly cold London morning won’t be what the players are thinking about right now, but with both clubs minds firmly on their respective goals in the Premier League this one could literally go either way.
The two lowest ranked teams remaining in the competition both continue their highly impressive campaigns on Saturday afternoon dreaming of making it to the Fifth Round and a trip to another one of the leagues big boys. League Two leaders Crawley Town travel to Championship high flyer’s Hull City hoping to pull off another shock result and further enhance their reputation as one of the teams to watch rise through the divisions in the next couple of years. Yet they face their toughest test to date in a Hull side which have gone from strength to strength since local hero Nicky Barmby took over from previous manager Nigel Pearson. Nigel Pearson left Hull to take over at the big spenders of the Championship, Leicester City, who take on the lowest ranked side left in the competition, Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town. Swindon are riding high in League Two and are sure to be full of confidence following their Third Round win against Premier League side Wigan Athletic, proving that they are more than capable of causing yet another cup upset. Paolo Di Canio has turned Swindon around following his appointment, silencing the critics who didn’t believe he had what it took to be a manager. I could see an upset in one of both of these games, but with a host of Premier League sides due to fall at this stage of the competition their Championship opposition may fancy their chances of progressing further.
Elsewhere there are a selection of all Premiership contests as well as six games between teams from the Football League meaning that at the very least six names will be in the hat for the Fifth Round draw from the lower leagues, but something tells me that there will be more. The magic of the FA Cup still remains in force in England where the results come down to which teams want it more on the day, after all anything can happen in ninety minutes. I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the headlines which come out of the weekends games are of a positive nature because that is what the FA Cup deserves. So sit back and enjoy the action unfold before the Premier League and Football League return with a bang next weekend and the stresses of where this season might take your team continue.