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City, Chelsea restore glory to FA Cup
The two FA Cup semifinals could hardly have been more different. On Saturday, Wigan Athletic saw off Millwall in a game notable far less for what happened on the pitch than for the violence off it; on Sunday, Manchester City beat Chelsea 2-1 in a minor classic, a thrilling game played out in spring sunshine before a packed stadium of passionate but well-behaved fans.
It’s true there was controversy, both in Sergio Aguero’s two-footed lunge at David Luiz and in the penalty not given when Vincent Kompany grabbed the shirt of Fernando Torres in the box but at least it was controversy within the game, a by-product of the tremendous desire on the part of both sides to win. And that, perhaps, was the most striking aspect. Every year the FA Cup seems to be surrounded by debates about its worth; about ways of making it more interesting or more relevant. Take two good teams who care about winning and set them against each other in a one-off contest and the result can be gloriously engaging.
The only disappointment was that Chelsea only turned up after half-time. It was its 61st game of the season – a by-product of progress in the Europa League – and while its manager, Rafa Benitez, refused to use that as an excuse, it’s hard to believe fatigue wasn’t a factor in Chelsea’s flat first half display. If tiredness had been an issue, he said, “then you cannot explain how you finish so strong. You have to give credit to City – they’re a strong team technically and physically.”
He must know, though, that it’s entirely possible for a weary side to raise itself for a final surge – and the danger now is that that fatigue carries over to this week’s league games, away against Fulham and Liverpool. Chelsea has won only two of its last 12 games away from Stamford Bridge and there lurks a danger that it could end up with nothing if it really has hit the wall. Benitez is smart enough to recognize that even acknowledging fatigue as a factor risks offering players an excuse.
City could easily have had the game won by half-time, but a combination of Petr Cech’s excellence and some wasteful finishing meant it led only 1-0, Samir Nasri finishing calmly after the ball had bobbled kindly to him from Cesar Azpilicueta’s challenge. “We talked at half-time about having more character in possession but conceded early in the second half,” said Benitez, his side’s marking again going awry, and Azpilicueta raising questions about his sharpness as he allowed Aguero to run on to Gareth Barry’s cross and guide a header past Cech.
The arrival of Fernando Torres rallied Chelsea, and after Demba Ba had brilliantly volleyed in off the post, it had a flurry of chances. Costel Pantilimon, preferred to Joe Hart as he has been throughout the Cup campaign, made a couple of fine blocks and David Luiz sent a free-kick just wide. That final hour was astonishingly stretched, Chelsea clearly near its limits, and it’s hard to imagine it could have maintained that intensity had it taken the game to extra-time. The issue now is to recover before Wednesday.
City, meanwhile, is a firm favorite for the final, even if its manager Roberto Mancini admitted the FA Cup is only a consolation after a dismal defense of their league title. “We can be disappointed for the Premier League,” he said. “I think we had a chance to win the Premier League if we’d worked well last summer. We didn’t. We made some mistakes. Now we are a good team, we know this and when we play in the FA Cup, we want to win the final. Everyone can think we are favorite for this game – but in 90 minutes anything can happen. Wigan we know play good football.”
Wigan had been comfortable winners over Millwall before in a game overshadowed by violence in the Millwall end that led to 14 arrests and the possibility of more to come. Given the efforts the club has made to rid itself of the hooligan image it acquired in the eighties, the incidents came as a sickening reminder that a reputation for trouble can reach a point at which it is self-perpetuating, and also took the gloss of what should have been a glorious day for Wigan. It’s true that it is the Premier League team and it’s true that it dominated the game for all but a spell of about 20 minutes after half-time, but reaching a first FA Cup final is still an enormous achievement for a club that only joined the Premier League in 2005.
There was mockery of the fact Wigan could only sell 22,000 tickets and had to send 10,000 of its allocation back, but that should be set in the wider context that when Roberto Martinez joined the club as a player, 18 years ago, it was in the fourth flight and attendances hovered around 2,000. Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner, the man whose money has funded the rise through the leagues – including the purchase of Martinez – will lead the side out at Wembley, a reminder that his top-level playing career was effectively ended in an FA Cup final. He broke his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers in its 3-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1960, leaving the club that summer to drop down the divisions and join Crewe Alexandra.
Whelan’s return to Wembley will be the romantic preview, but this weekend it was City who restored faith in the FA Cup.
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