FA Cup derbies highlight of weekend
This weekend brings two massive derbies in the FA Cup semifinals. It’s a London showdown and a Liverpool grudge match, live and exclusively on FOX Soccer. Here’s the lowdown on two of the biggest games of the season, and a peek at two critical Premier league games to boot:
LIVERPOOL VS. EVERTON
(Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: Everton versus Liverpool is a matchup that gets the blood pumping. Bitter Merseyside rivals separated by the width of Stanley Park, these two clubs have been squaring off against one another for over one hundred years. On Saturday at Wembley Stadium, they’ll meet for the 216th time. It will be explosive, passionate, must-see TV.
This will undoubtedly be a poignant day for Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish. This was the fixture and the competition that saw him leave football management and the Reds twenty-one years ago for the first time. An insane 4-4 draw at Goodison Park on February 20, 1991, was the final straw for the man who had carried the team on his shoulders since the Hillsborough disaster on April 15, 1989. There is no getting around it: it will be an emotional day.
It’s been seventeen years since Everton last hoisted silverware and David Moyes is well aware that this opportunity is too good to pass up — especially given that his rivals are going through a period of turmoil. The last time they met in this competition, Everton went to the final where they lost to a Didier Drogba-inspired Chelsea, despite Louis Saha scoring the fastest goal in FA Cup final history.
WHO TO WATCH: It has been said recently that Steven Gerrard is the cause of Liverpool’s slump. The percentages seem to back that up. When the skipper has started they have won just 9% of their matches compared to the 48% win ratio when he has not appeared from kick-off. It’s a staggering difference.
This is Gerrard that we’re talking about though. He is the talisman who has single-handedly won matches for the club over the last decade, including the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham United. If anyone is capable of raising their performance level for a one-off match, it’s him.
I think Gerrard is well aware that the sands of time are slipping by and that there won’t be that many last hurrahs. The relish with which he lifted the Carling Cup trophy at Wembley six weeks ago is still fresh in my mind, and he’ll carry that momentum forward on Saturday.
Alongside Gerrard, goalkeeper Brad Jones will be the focus of attention. The Aussie made a startling midweek Premier League debut against Blackburn by saving a Yakubu penalty with his first touch, after coming on for a red carded Doni. Jones has endured an emotional five months as his son, Luca, passed away from leukemia last November. Jones dedicated the win post-game to Luca’s memory. Saturday will be a roller coaster for him.
In the Toffees’ goal will be one Tim Howard. The United States international is now recognized as one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and he’ll be aching to add to his FA Cup medal collection — he won the trophy with Manchester United in 2004.
Howard has elevated his game to the level where he rarely makes big mistakes and has become the keystone of Everton’s backline. His organizational ability is superb, while his shot-stopping is exceptional. If Tim is on top of his game, Everton will have a huge edge in this department.
Everton’s problem all season has been scoring goals. However, the signing of Nikica Jelavic from Glasgow Rangers has seemingly invigorated the team’s entire attack. The Croatian has scored five goals in seven starts. He’s big (6-foot-1,) mobile and blessed with the ability to score different types of goals. Having been held scoreless by the Reds on derby day a few weeks ago, he’ll be ready to use that experience on the field.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: Derby matches are notoriously hard to predict, and this one is no different. The right half of the brain says Liverpool. They have the Carling Cup in the bank, and they know that winning the FA Cup will redeem what has been a poor season. That said, there is a feeling of disarray within the club. The sudden departure of Damien Comolli on Thursday reinforced the sense of unease at Anfield.
The left half of the brain says Everton. They’re in a great run of form and there is real belief in the team that they can go all the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw extra-time and penalties. Then, it will be up to the keepers.
TOTTENHAM VS. CHELSEA
(Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: This is north London versus west London — and two teams headed in different directions. Chelsea is now on the upswing, while Tottenham is sinking faster than a stone in water.
Both clubs have their eye on another prize - namely Champions League qualification. The team that can focus and put all their resources into the full ninety minutes will have the advantage.
This will be their 146th meeting, but incredibly they’ve only met ten times in the FA Cup. The last time they met in the FA Cup was 2007 when the Blues went on to defeat Manchester United in the final. A possible? Perhaps.
WHO TO WATCH: Love him, hate him or just plain despise him, Ashley Cole is still the best left-back in England, and Wembley suits his attacking game. The national stadium has one of the biggest pitches (115 x 75 yards) in the country, and is a dream for players who love to attack. The key with Cole is his consistency - he rarely has back-to-back bad games.
Drogba is a Wembley killer. The Blues have won the FA Cup three times with the Ivorian footballer. He has the physical presence and tremendous shooting power to make the difference. With rumors flowing that this is his last season with the club, he’ll do everything in his power to get Chelsea to another final.
Tottenham are far from a one-man team. When Gareth Bale is on, they possess a player who is the envy of clubs throughout the world. The question Tottenham fans are asking is: where will he be in the lineup? I prefer him on the left, where his pace and ability to run with the ball make him almost unstoppable. However, his manager, Harry Redknapp, has been using him on the right hoping that he can cut in and shoot for power with that sweet left foot. In my opinion, this will be a match-defining decision.
Many experts have said that if it weren’t for injuries, Ledley King would have been one of the greatest center backs in the modern game. Bad knees have bedeviled King throughout his career, resulting in him barely training and struggling to secure a starting role. Nevertheless, his reading of the game is almost flawless. It will need to be against the pace and power of Drogba, and a resurgent Fernando Torres.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: If this match was being played in west London, the Blues would win. However, the neutral venue in north London, plus Chelsea looking at a midweek tie versus Barcelona, has me leaning towards the Lilywhites. They usually win the Cup in years ending with ’01 (no, really) so perhaps it’s time for a change. This game will be tight.
SWANSEA CITY VS. BLACKBURN
(Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: The feel-good story of the season versus a team clinging to Premier League survival makes this a fascinating match at Liberty Stadium in Wales.
Swansea may have taken their foot slightly off the gas pedal, but they are still very good value at home where they have picked up a respectable 26 points. One more point and they will be at the promised land of 40 points, the accepted mark for survival.
On the other hand, Blackburn are 12 points away from that mark and find themselves in the bottom three once again, despite performing with character and guts against Liverpool.
WHO TO WATCH: Who had heard of Danny Graham before this season? He was a journeyman footballer who had bounced around England since turning professional with Middlesbrough in 2003. Suddenly, he’s started banging in the goals in the top flight. Playing in a Swans side that plays free-flowing football, suits Graham well. However, he is going through his leanest spell of the season. Consistency will be the key to his future success.
Paul Robinson used to be England’s number one and he’s barely on the radar now. It’s not that he’s become a bad goalkeeper: he’s simply playing on a bad team. In theory, that should give him more opportunities to shine. It hasn’t. If Blackburn is to survive, Robinson will need to show the form that once made him the hero of Leeds and Tottenham.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: With Swansea almost safe and Blackburn desperate for points, the longer this one remains scoreless the more chance there is of Swansea winning. Blackburn would be happy with a point.
MANCHESTER UNITED VS. ASTON VILLA
(Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: United’s stunning, first-ever loss to Wigan threw the Premier League title race open again. Sir Alex Ferguson will be more than a little keen to get back to winning ways. Another slip-up from the Red Devils, could let City in. Yet, it’s hard to see that happening against an Aston Villa side that has failed to produce anything of note this campaign.
WHO TO WATCH: The experienced trio of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand are the difference between first and second place. There is just so much know-how and experience flowing through their veins that it’s almost unthinkable to think of them losing two on the bounce.
The loss of Stiliyan Petrov to acute leukemia was a blow to the Villans, and one that might take them ages to recover from. That being the case, this must be the last opportunity for Stephen Ireland to prove that he can carry a team. The twenty-five-year-old feels like he has been a Premier League veteran forever. With over one hundred appearances for the “noisy neighbors” of Manchester City, Ireland has the ability. Whether he has the mental makeup remains unknown.
WEBSTER’S WISTOM: In 2009, Villa upset United at Old Trafford thanks to Gabby Agbonlahor. I just can’t see that happening again. Home win.