Beauty, drama and magic of the FA Cup

The FA Cup returned at its tempestuous best this weekend, with the injection of Premier League teams into the Third Round. It was plain to see once more that the beauty, drama and magic of the tournament lie in the urgency the single-elimination format imbues its games with. You lose your game and you’re out, which leaves its higher-profile participants with an uneasy anxiety, uncomfortable in the knowledge that the margin of error is none. For the unloved, the effect is opposite. With nothing to lose, they are liberated of the shackles of expectation and can play with unfettered minds, frequently leading to upsets.

This was most dramatically on show on Sunday when once-mighty-now-middling Liverpool traveled to fifth-tier Mansfield Town and its freshly-plowed potato field, another staple of the Third Round. Jonjo Shelvey threaded the needle for Daniel Sturridge in the 7th minute, allowing him to finish cleanly on his Liverpool debut. But Mansfield hung tough, grappling against the one-way traffic with its brawny, laborious play. Liverpool failed to put the minnows away and were nearly punished in the second half, when an intrepid Mansfield brazenly began pelting Brad Jones’s goal. Luis Suarez scored a second for the Reds against the run of play in the 59th minute, however, blatantly controlling the ball with his hand. And that proved the pivotal moment of the game, as Mansfield would score a goal of its own in the 79th minute through Matt Green. This meant the wee club ultimately owed its demise to a capitalized-upon blown call or an unsportsmanlike con job, depending on your perspective.

Even more entertaining was the SwanseaArsenal affair between the Premier League’s frontrunners in stylistic ambition earlier that day. In the first half, Swansea looked a lot like last year’s Swanselona – or Barca-upon-Tawe, if you will – moving and passing sharply while lofting dangerous balls over the top, to outplay the Gunners. Arsenal put things right in the second half, though, as Swansea withered under the increased pressure and speed of play their opponents began to apply, suddenly making boyish errors where they had once looked like an unshakable collective. Yet Michu, who has proved such good value for money for Swansea that he might well have been purchased in a Dollar Store, capitalized on yet more shambolic Arsenal defending in the 58th minute, barreling through the bumbling back line and slipping the ball under Wojciech Szczesny.

At length, Lukas Podolski hammered in the equalizer in the 82nd minute after a scramble in the box. And not a minute later, Kieran Gibbs, who set up his own attack over the left on a deft give-and-go with Olivier Giroud, smashed his volley into the roof of the goal. But this is the FA Cup, and Ki Sung-Yueng freed Danny Graham for the Swansea’s 87th minute equalizer, precipitating a furious finale in which both sides blew game-winning chances before settling for a 2-2 draw and a replay.

Equally spectacular was the finale to West Ham UnitedManchester United. Tom Cleverley cleverly (sorry…) finished a cross from Chicharito in the 23rd minute but West Ham’s newly reacquired youth product Joe Cole twice lofted a ball into the box for James Collins to head home in the 27th and 57th minute. With mere minutes remaining, Robin van Persie artfully cushioned a laser-guided long ball from fellow substitute Ryan Giggs, blew past his man and tapped it out of Jussi Jaaskelainen’s reach to register the same replay-inducing 2-2 score.

On Saturday, Jay Rodriguez gave Southampton a daring 17th-minute lead, considering that they were utterly dominated by Chelsea. This only seemed to spur their opponents on, keen to avoid a second consecutive upset to a team they should be beating handily – after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to hapless bottom-feeders Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League. Through Juan Mata and Eden Hazard the attack started to flow while Victor Moses and debutant Demba Ba provided danger. It was Ba who equalized in the 36th by smashing a deflected Mata shot over the line. After Moses rifled one in to finish off a silky attack and Ivanovic cherry-picked the third goal with a six yard-header, Ba got his second, now finishing nicely on a crisp leading ball by Hazard. Frank Lampard would score the fifth off a penalty.

Most other results were unsurprising. Manchester City strolled past second-tier Watford, 3-0. Middlesbrough dispatched seventh-tier Hastings United 4-1, eliminating the smallest club still alive.

But the hoped-for upsets nevertheless materialized. Noticeably Ba-less and feckless Newcastle was simply outplayed by second-tier Brighton & Hove Albion 2-0. That made it Newcastle’s 10th loss in 12 games, having won just three of their last 18. The Magpies have quickly fallen from 10th place in the league, which wasn’t satisfactory to begin with, to 15th and got knocked out of both domestic cups at the first opportunity. (Luckily, clueless owner Mike Ashley recently gave manager Alan Pardew an 8-year contract.)

In other upsets, third-tier Bournemouth tied Wigan Athletic of the Premier League away, 1-1; fifth-tier Macclesfield beat second-tier Cardiff City 2-1; second-tier Nottingham Forrest lost to third-tier Oldham Athletic, 2-3; and fifth-tier Luton Town knocked off Wolverhampton Wanderers, which played at the highest level just last season, 1-0, understandably precipitating the firing of Wolves manager Stale Solbakken.

The Third Round underscored that in today’s English football, the measure of your success equates more or less to the quality of the attackers you’ve acquired of late. Consider the evidence – Spurs beat Coventry City 3-0 on the strength of Clint Dempsey’s brace (fellow American Brad Friedel kept a clean sheet in goal). Van Persie saved Manchester United’s bacon and Chelsea seemed a much stronger side with Ba in it. The Senegalese striker provided a new efficiency and utility in the box so conspicuously absent with the embattled Fernando Torres on the field, and Newcastle looked noticeably weaker without the man who had scored 13 of their 26 goals so far this season. Cole, a very attacking midfielder, masterminded both of West Ham’s goals; Michu’s entrance into the fray helped put Swansea ahead; while Sturridge gave Liverpool its go-ahead goal.

All of them are new to their clubs this season. And all of them played crucial roles this rollicking Third Round.