May 13, 2011

Stoke aim to defy the odds

Posted by Jon Champion on 13/05/2011

Tony Pulis faces the biggest day of his career in football. © Getty Images

Stoke approach their first ever FA Cup final as definite underdogs. Who says so? Well, their chairman, Peter Coates, whose online betting company has been offering odds as generous as 9/2 against the Potters lifting the cup.

To be unfancied suits Stoke perfectly well. Manager Tony Pulis has also sought to emphasise what he calls the “void” between the two clubs. He knows full well that his team lack the pedigree and poise of their opponents. What he doesn’t say but knows to be true is that Stoke’s boundless passion and persistence is often enough to bridge any gap in quality. Just look at last weekend’s victory over Arsenal.

I must confess that I am delighted to see a club like Stoke in the final. My ears have only just stopped ringing after the decibel-fuelled choruses of ‘Delilah’ that provided a raucous backdrop to the most one-sided semi-final in more than a century.

In this age of foreign ownership and style over substance, Stoke City stand out. They are the only surviving founder members of the Football League never to have won the FA Cup. Image concerns them not one jot.

Times are hard in the Potteries, and ever since Coates returned to the club in 2006, buying out a misguided group of Icelandic investors, the club has done its best to put a smile on the face of a city that has had more than its share of economic setbacks.

The chairman’s first act was to re-appoint Pulis as manager. To say his return was greeted with scepticism would be an understatement: 90% of the club’s fans suggested they would have preferred someone - anyone - else. Ask them now and you would get a very different response.

Pulis and his team have guaranteed a fourth consecutive season in the Premier League, they will play in Europe for the first time since 1974, and the biggest day in the club’s 148-year history is now upon them.

Many of Stoke’s finest former players will be in attendance. Gordon Banks, Denis Smith and Terry Conroy have places in the Royal Box. Conroy scored when Stoke won the 1972 League Cup - their only major honour. Eight weeks ago, he collapsed with an aortic aneurism and was told he had just a 10% chance of surviving the surgery that followed. Happily, he has defied the odds and the thought of being at Wembley has sustained him through the dark days of post-operative recovery.

All of the above mentioned players represented clubs other than Stoke, yet all have gravitated back to watch them on a regular basis. That says a great deal about a club that has a genuine heart. From chairman via manager through an honest group of players to the officials and staff, it’s an organisation that knows its place in the grander scheme of things. That’s why the 28,000 with final tickets are so lucky and why exiled Potters from across the world are scrambling back to savour an occasion many thought Stoke would never be part of.

An internet campaign has been launched encouraging Stoke fans to stay on at the final whistle even if Manchester City have won the cup. The aim: to ensure that a Mancunian moment of celebration has a Potteries backdrop to it. If the worst comes to the worst and their team is second best, they are determined that ‘Delilah’ will be louder than ‘Blue Moon’ when the cup is raised.

Stoke are set on making the most of their biggest day - come what may.

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Mancini's defining moment

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 13/05/2011

Roberto Mancini could win a domestic cup with a fourth club at Wembley. © Getty Images

After nearly 18 months in charge of Manchester City, and a defining week in his reign, I think Saturday will be the day that Roberto Mancini is judged. A win against Tottenham on Tuesday night secured Champions League football for the first time and now the Italian could end the club’s 35-year wait for a trophy in the FA Cup final against Stoke City on Sunday.

If, as expected, Manchester City beat Stoke to win their first piece of silverware since the 1976 League Cup, then Mancini will have done exactly what he was told to do by the club’s billionaire owners: finish in the top four and win a cup. However, should it all go wrong at Wembley, the jury will still be out. Is a place in the Champions League qualifiers an adequate return on the investment put into the club? I think that is yet to be determined.

I also think there are still legitimate complaints about City’s style of play, from fans and pundits alike, given how much money they have spent in recent seasons. I recently interviewed Nigel de Jong and put this issue to him. He said that we all know where the manager is from, and he is right. Mancini is from a country where a cautious style of play is ingrained into him. He is what he is, and if you are going to employ him then you have to accept that style of football.

If those in charge of Manchester City ultimately want to see a more attractive style, as Roman Abramovich did at Chelsea, they will need a fresh approach. They might be successful under Mancini and perhaps they will win the title next season, but they won’t do it playing expansive, carpet football. They will win it with 1-0s and 2-1s. I think it is a fair complaint from fans that they are not being entertained as much as they should be.

Of course, even if they do win the FA Cup on Saturday, Manchester City’s parade could be well and truly rained on. If they win silverware for the first time in 35 years, then they will surely be fighting for space on the back pages with Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s 19th league title, as it is likely the red half of the city will be celebrating the point they need against Blackburn. If United win and then City lose, it would be one of the worst days in the club’s history. So, given that scenario, City fans will be even more desperate to win the trophy.

Saturday will be a fascinating game. Manchester City’s vulnerability lies in crosses and they don’t look particularly hot from set-pieces. I think Tony Pulis might look at that and be encouraged about the Rory Delap long throw, and the delivery from wide positions of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington, should the latter recover from injury in time to take his place in the side. Really, Manchester City should win. End of story. But we could well have a shock on our hands given how impressive Stoke were in their 5-0 defeat of Bolton in the semi-final. Their subsequent form since then has also been eye-catching and has seen them rise to eighth in the table.

Given that Carlos Tevez made his return from injury against Spurs, albeit for only seven minutes, he will surely start at Wembley. He will probably play as the lone striker with two players wide of him, possibly David Silva and Adam Johnson. If Tevez is short of fitness, though, then Mancini will probably go with Edin Dzeko as Mario Balotelli is too much of a risk in the biggest game for City in many a year.

In fact, I don’t think we are going to see Balotelli in English football for much longer. He has certainly sparked debate in the media as he is a constant source of stories and everybody loves a character. But in some people’s eyes he has stepped over the line too frequently this season. I think if he had scored 20 goals like Chicharito in his debut season then he would be more of a loveable rogue. At the moment he is just a rogue.

Whether Mancini stays or goes, I think it is unlikely Balotelli will be at the club come August. However, given the kind of person he is and the talent he possesses, he could easily come on and score the winner in the FA Cup final and forever be a Manchester City hero.

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April 22, 2011

Final flourishes for bosses?

Posted by Jon Champion on 22/04/2011

Will Avram Grant be in charge at Upton Park next season? © Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti and Avram Grant will occupy the dugouts for ESPN’s live Barclays Premier League fixture between Chelsea and West Ham this Saturday, but you would get long odds against them both being in charge of their respective clubs should they meet again next season.

Ancelotti gives the impression of being a man who already knows - or at the very least strongly suspects - his fate. He’s been down this path before. For Berlusconi in Milan read Abramovich at Chelsea. Both rich, powerful men who apparently like to have a say in the running of their teams. Both demand trophies, yet neither shows much inclination to be patient.

Strangely, Avram Grant probably enjoys a better relationship with the Russian oligarch than the current Chelsea manager. At the request of his friend, the Israeli picked up the pieces after Jose Mourinho’s abrupt departure in 2007 and guided the club to a treble of sorts. Runners-up in the Champions League, the Premier League and the League Cup with just six defeats in 54 matches – good enough for most clubs, but not enough to earn a second season in west London.

Off the back of his stint at Chelsea, Grant has landed jobs at Portsmouth and now West Ham, and in both roles he has been faced with adversity and animosity. He gives the impression of being a man with better connections than qualifications. His hang-dog look is more Clement Freud than Alex Ferguson.

Frustratingly for the Hammers he has shown himself capable of producing results in knockout football. Even now, with four league games left, he has more Cup victories to his credit this season than three-point wins. The humbling of Manchester United in a thrilling League Cup quarter-final will go down as one of the great Upton Park nights, yet all too often the Hammers’ vocal terrace yeomen have been let down by anaemic, listless performances.

Three months ago, Grant looked a goner having thrown his claret and blue scarf into the crowd after a hefty home defeat by Arsenal. Martin O’Neill’s arrival was meant to be imminent. The Israeli’s wave as he sloped down the tunnel was taken as a farewell. In fact it was anything but. The axe never fell and the club’s dalliance with O’Neill had fatally undermined a struggling manager.

Since then there have been suggestions of improvement followed by confirmations that not much has changed. If chairmen Sullivan and Gold had done the deed in January, maybe the club’s plight might have eased. As it is, West Ham now need to win three of their last five games, two of which are against Chelsea and Manchester City. There’s little evidence to suggest that Avram Grant does miracles. Scott Parker sometimes does, but he’s injured.

In fact given West Ham’s travails, this could finally be the week when Fernando Torres breaks his Chelsea duck: 725 minutes without a goal is bad news for a new striker that cost £50,000, let alone £50 million.

I remain to be convinced that Ancelotti really wanted him. The Italian’s body language at Torres’ introductory press conference reminded me of a child forced to say thank you for an undesired Christmas present, proffered by a grandparent with oodles of money but precious little insight into the workings of a young mind.

Ancelotti must have known that Torres’ arrival would unsettle his best players and require a new system to be implemented, but he is a coach not a manager. His job is to work with the players the club decides to buy.

He must feel like the curator of an art gallery that has bought a rare Picasso yet can find no room to display it because of all the other Old Masters already on the walls.

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March 31, 2011

Only fools rush in

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 31/03/2011

Steve Kean is under increasing pressure at Ewood Park © Getty Images

Given their current predicament, Blackburn Rovers could be seen as a cautionary tale against undue haste. They rushed into sacking a manager, Sam Allardyce, who was doing perfectly well, and then on the back of a couple of victories early in his reign they handed Steve Kean a three-year contract. He may well turn out to be a top manager, but he has no experience as the No. 1 so it was a surprising decision to give him the top job so quickly. That worried a few fans and was probably a bit too rash. As soon as he signed the contract, their results have started to go downhill.

The decision to sack Allardyce in December seemed to come out of nowhere, and if he had stayed you wouldn’t be surprised to see Blackburn in the top half right now. When new owners come in they want to stamp their authority and they get very excited about owning a Premier League club. They want to make a difference and a change straightaway, when perhaps they aren’t particularly familiar with football. I don’t think Venky’s know much about the game. The decision to sack Allardyce was the wrong one and it was taken at the wrong time. They caused themselves unnecessary problems - just look at their league situation now, ahead of Saturday's live game on ESPN, compared to when Allardyce left.

Venky’s have talked about signing players like Ronaldinho and Ruud van Nistelrooy, but stars of that calibre are realistically not going to go to Blackburn. A persistent problem in football, from the top all the way down to the bottom, is that the people in charge of clubs have not played the game, so they tend not to understand a manager’s role. They just see pound signs and commercial opportunities, a chance to sell more shirts, and it is not always of benefit to the man in charge.

At Blackburn, Venky’s don’t seem to understand the game. Will they ever? I’m not so sure. It is a real problem for the Premier League, which is a rich person’s plaything. These are clubs with over a hundred years of tradition and history and they shouldn’t be messed with. They should be treated with much more care than some owners treat clubs.

I feel for Steve Kean, though, because he had to take that job. He obviously had his sights set on a managerial role and he couldn’t turn down an opportunity in the Premier League. But in a relegation fight you need experience, and I don’t think we know enough of Kean to definitively judge whether he can keep Blackburn up. He has impressive coaching credentials but has he got the ability in terms of motivation, in terms of conducting a half-time team talk when they are 1-0 down away from home? Only time will tell over the next few games.

On the evidence of results so far you could infer it is not working. Blackburn are certainly in a tricky position at present and a number of pundits I have spoken to in the past few weeks have all tipped them to go down. I think the club have the right assets to stay up though: the players are just about good enough, although Roque Santa Cruz needs to start putting in some performances to demonstrate why he originally left the club for £17 million.

Given they have players like Christopher Samba, Paul Robinson, Ryan Nelsen and David Dunn, I think Blackburn will prove to be better than three teams this season. The names at Ewood Park don’t exactly roll off the tongue in terms of quality, but they do have individuals with a lot of experience, amongst the playing staff at least.

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March 22, 2011

Chad Johnson: a two-sport star?

Posted by Nat Coombs on 22/03/2011

News that Chad Johnson, arguably the NFL’s most flamboyant superstar, is trying his hand in the MLS should come as no surprise. You think Mario Balotelli is eccentric? Couple of years back Johnson legally changed his name to Ocho Cinco – his shirt number, 85, in Spanish. He was prolifically tweeting & appearing live on Ustream talking about Lady Ga-Ga and his love of cigars whilst other athletes were still getting to grips with MySpace or Facebook. Even Middle America fell in love with him when he foxtrotted his way around Dancing With The Stars - their version of Strictly Come Dancing. And now he’s announced, mid labour disputes in his primary sport which means players are, effectively, on enforced holiday, that he’s having a five-day trial with Sporting Kansas City.

It’s unlikely that this is anything more than another stunt in a career full of more colourful manoeuvres than a Miro retrospective at Tate Modern. But it did get me considering a few things. Firstly, is it even possible for an athlete to capably switch sports to a suitable level in 2011? Sure, there are examples of it happening historically : CB Fry knocked up 30,000 first class runs in Cricket and simultaneously was a capable defender for Southampton & England. “Neon” Deion Sanders played his way to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL whilst turning out for the New York Yankees and others as a professional baseball player. The great Michael Jordan – in many people’s eyes the finest athlete of all - switched from basketball to baseball too – but never made the Major Leagues.

Closer to home we had former West Ham hardman Julian Dicks on our chat show Talk of the Terrace (Mondays 6.30PM ESPN) last week and he discussed how he tried his hand at becoming a pro golfer when injury forced him out of the Premier League - but despite coming close, wasn’t quite able to join the elite.

The thing that connects all these stories is that there hasn’t been a recent example of a player pulling it off. It just hasn’t happened in the last 20 years. Presumably there are lots of reasons for this. The dramatic increase in pace that we’ve seen in football is representative of all major sports – and the levels of conditioning, positional focus and training, plus the fact that so many leagues are now truly global, thus subject to a higher level of competition – and so not only is the transition between one to another that much harder, but barely considered by an athlete whose main focus is the protection of his standing within his primary sport.

Factor in tactical savvy and an understanding of the game that is only developed with repetitive experience, and the difference between looking good in training – or over a five-day trial - and putting in a capable performance over 90 minutes in a system that relies on all 11 players knowing what their individual role is continuously, and the scale of the challenge is magnified. Johnson – a pacy Wide Receiver – is a huge football fan (he’s reputedly good mates with Thierry Henry) and played the game when he was younger. He’s clearly on a par with many, if not all, of the MLS players in terms of physical attributes and instinctive athletic ability. But his speed and agility will only carry him so far – even if the level of competition he’d be going into is more akin to the Championship than the PL.

When the Johnson story broke I tweeted for suggestions of which Premier League players could make it in the NFL and in what position. Around all the jokey suggestions – Berbatov, Michael Owen & Nani being my favourite three – the overwhelming winner was Micah Richards, presumably because he quite visibly posseses the physicality required for most positions. And arguably, whilst the strategic complexity of the NFL, certain positions, and the short, sharp explosive involvement lend themselves far more to a player making the transition between sports, because they can rely on physicality and natural ability more than anything else.
Will we ever see a two-sport star in our lifetime? I doubt it. Ocho must rank among the hot favourites to ever do it simply due to his remarkable and chutzpah but even if he does get picked up by Kansas City, you can bet your house that when the NFL finally gets its act together and the lockout is recinded he’ll be back in Cincinatti faster than you can say “$6 million” – the amount he’s due to earn this year.

Follow me on Twitter @natcoombs

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March 11, 2011

Managing expectation

Posted by Jon Champion on 11/03/2011

Roberto Mancini's side have stumbled on occasion this season © Getty Images

Manchester City and Reading don’t have a great deal in common these days, save that they appointed their managers within two days of each other some 15 months ago - and neither club has had cause to regret their choice.

At tea-time on Sunday, Roberto Mancini and Brian McDermott will be cast as equals for a day as the Football League’s last remaining representatives play their FA Cup quarter-final at Eastlands. You can enjoy the game live on ESPN from 1600 GMT.

The replacement of Mark Hughes with Roberto Mancini created plenty of headlines, but frankly City could have appointed Henry Mancini and, given the resources available, expected him to make a decent fist of the job.

Reading’s scenario was somewhat different. After six years of unparalleled achievement under Steve Coppell had ended in relegation and a failure to return to the Premier League at the first attempt, the Royals had engaged Brendan Rodgers as the man to rebuild their fortunes.

When Plan B yielded little return, Sir John Madejski parted company with Rodgers and, as a way of buying some thinking time, put the club’s faithful servant, Brian McDermott, in temporary charge.

McDermott had been at the club for a decade as chief scout and manager of the youth and reserve teams and was regarded as a safe pair of hands. In fact, he quickly proved to be much more than that, and after a dramatic FA Cup win at Liverpool, the former Arsenal player was confirmed in post.

He went on to oversee a run to the last eight. Reading led 2-0 at Villa Park in the quarter-final, only to be derailed by a John Carew hat-trick, but the ascent in the league from relegation peril to mid-table safety was accomplished with some style and the momentum has continued this season.

Reading are still in with a shout of a play-off place and now face only their third ever FA Cup quarter-final. I saw them win at Goodison Park in the last round - and if they can play as well as that on Sunday, and if City are as insipid as they have tended on occasion to be, then no one should discount the Royals’ chances, especially as their visit comes so soon after a gruelling trip to Kiev for the hosts.

Of the other ties, I would not be surprised if Alex McLeish makes some compromises when he selects his team to face Bolton. Birmingham’s Premier League position is worrying, whereas Owen Coyle can choose his best side with no fear of recrimination.

West Ham appear to be on a roll and must fancy their chances of beating Stoke for the second weekend in a row. However, the hostility of the Britannia Stadium is a big plus for Tony Pulis and his men of steel.

And at Old Trafford, two heavyweights collide. Both managers have had communication issues in the past week. Ferguson has refused to speak, Wenger has said rather too much to a Swiss referee. But if that game is as good as it should be, then everyone will be talking about it.

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St Andrew's day in Birmingham

Posted by Darrell Currie on 11/03/2011

Owen Coyle and Alex McLeish are two members of an impressive band of Scottish managers © Getty Images

How fitting it is that two Scottish managers will fight it out for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals at a venue called St Andrew’s? For those of you still scratching your heads as to what I am talking about - St Andrew is of course the patron saint of Scotland. Okay, so I’m off to a far-fetched start here, but let me get to my point - both of these men deserve an immense amount of credit for what their clubs have achieved this season (not sure how I got to that point, but at least it was slightly educational!).

Let’s start with the man who’s been in the blue corner for quite some time - Alex McLeish. Big Eck is a tremendous man, a pleasure to speak to, and he’s found success just about everywhere he’s been: at Rangers he won trophies on a budget, with Scotland he achieved some impossible and unlikely results and at Birmingham he’s just secured the Carling Cup (their first trophy since 1963).

At Wembley, the Blues really shocked the nation by defeating Arsenal, but they were worthy of the win. Alex got his tactics bang-on, exposing Arsenal’s ‘soft centre’ with Nikola Zigic playing on his own up front, and behind the giant striker he had a team of warriors. McLeish gets every ounce out of his players; he’s a motivator who sets high standards (right out of the Sir Alex school of management). Yes he may well be in a relegation fight, but if Birmingham can stay up, then they really can celebrate their cup triumph.

Now McLeish can dream of heading to Wembley again in the FA Cup, thanks to a draw that has been favourable all the way to the quarter-finals. A home game at this stage is great, but to get a side out of the hat that is outside the top six is an even more practical assignment. In saying all that, I’m not sure Birmingham are actually favourites (and that’s despite the fact they’ve only lost four times at home all season).

I was at St Andrew’s last weekend to watch Birmingham lose to West Brom in one of the several West Midlands derbies. McLeish’s team looked like they were suffering from a cup hangover, and more than that, they looked like they had run their race. Vital players were also out injured (including their very own Lazarus - Barry Ferguson).

Without the likes of Ferguson, Craig Gardner and Zigic the team doesn’t play to the same beat. They lacked drive against the Baggies and that is not a positive sign at this stage of a testing season. If these key players do not return against Bolton, then Birmingham will have to conjure up some more of that unlikely Wembley resilience.

The man in the away dugout on Saturday also deserves top billing. Owen Coyle is one of the best men you will ever meet in the game - there are few managers who reply to my texts with a smiley face! Owen is a football purist who is not willing to compromise in his approach to the game. I spent quite a bit of time up at Burnley when Coyle was in charge there and realised he could turn a bunch of decent players into a stand-out cast.

I wondered if Owen could make Bolton tick when he first went there, and I wasn’t sure if he could adopt his own brand of football at a club who are hardly high in the fashion stakes - but Owen went and proved me wrong again. Bolton are flying high and even winning when the odds are against them (just ask Villa boss Gerard Houllier).

You will struggle to find a happier squad than Bolton’s - their Scottish boss’s attitude is so infectious, his good spirit has rubbed off on everyone around him. People keep wondering when they will nose-dive down the Premier League table, but I don’t think Coyle would allow it to happen. Bolton are too good for that, they have a leader on the pitch in Kevin Davies and, when Johan Elmander plays alongside him, anything can happen. In midfield I have been seriously impressed by Stuart Holden (who we have an exclusive interview with in the build-up to Saturday’s game). Owen Coyle once told me he could build a team around the USA international, so he must also rate him extremely highly. Throw in a potential England regular in Gary Cahill and all of a sudden you already have the makings of a consistently strong team - and that sums up Wanderers nicely.

So who will come out on top in this all-Scottish touchline affair? It’s hard to say, but I can assure you that both managers are deserving of a trip to Wembley, or, in Big Eck’s case, a return to that hallowed ground.

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February 18, 2011

A defining moment for Moyes

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 18/02/2011

David Moyes has been the subject of some criticism in recent weeks © Getty Images

Saturday’s FA Cup fourth-round replay at Stamford Bridge is arguably a season-defining fixture for both Chelsea and Everton. Given their current malaise, it does not look as though Chelsea can win the league, and the Champions League could also be beyond them in this kind of form, so the FA Cup could be the final trophy for them to recover some pride. For Everton, meanwhile, it could be a decisive game in the reign of David Moyes.

It has been such a shame to see some Everton supporters criticise Moyes during what has been a difficult season, as he has achieved so much since being appointed in March 2002. However, they are just venting their frustration at failing to see their club progress. Smaller clubs - in terms of history and stadium size - are moving ahead of them.

I am sure he is desperate to strengthen his squad but you feel he is in a position where Everton are being left behind. They are such a big club, but the rest of the top ten - sides like Manchester City of course, but also Aston Villa and Sunderland - have big investors. Everton do not. That is a difficult situation for Moyes to manage, particularly when he has no funds whatsoever.

The Scottish boss finds himself in a very difficult position. For a start, there is not too much interest in buying the club, so it is not as though there is light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since he finished in fourth spot in the 2004-05 season and then failed in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, people have suggested that Moyes may have taken Everton as far as he can, and questioned when he will go.

But where can he go? It is unlikely he will get the Manchester United, Manchester City or Arsenal jobs without recent success, and he cannot get success without money. You could argue that the longer he remains there, his stock drops, but what else can he do?

Sir Alex Ferguson tipped Everton to be a club who could break into the top four this season but that has proved to be wide of the mark, and it is purely down to the fact that the club have no funds at their disposal. When Moyes does buy, he buys well - the success of a player like Marouane Fellaini demonstrates that - but there are too few occurrences of improvements in the squad.

In that context, it is understandable that fans are growing frustrated. The worry is that the longer Moyes stays and the longer things don’t go quite right, the stronger those feelings will become amongst supporters. The achievements he has enjoyed - taking the club to the FA Cup final in 2009, finishing fourth in 2005 - may be forgotten by the fans. I wonder whether he is thinking, ‘Do I quit while I am ahead?’

If Everton are to rescue something from this season they have to get past Chelsea on Saturday, and I actually think they have a decent chance of doing so given the problems afflicting the London side at present.

Also, Everton know they will have Reading at home in the next round, and that is a real incentive. Whoever wins has a genuine chance of the quarter-finals, and after that, anything can happen. One thing is certain though: Everton, and their under-fire manager, need a result.

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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.

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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.

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