Huge weekend for glory hunters
The FA Cup leads off a big weekend on FOX Soccer but more eyes will probably turn to Sunday when both Manchester giants will be looking to wrap up the Premier League title. It’s crunch time, and here are the games you have to keep an eye this weekend.
LIVERPOOL V CHELSEA (LIVE Saturday on FOX Soccer, noon ET)
WHAT THIS IS: Don't tell this to Liverpool supporters, who have become accustomed to equating Cup successes with their one-time glory days, but the FA Cup final is no longer what it used to be.
Chelsea and Liverpool will play Saturday evening at Wembley to decide who lifts this year's trophy, but so completely have the Champions League and the Barclays Premier League eclipsed English football that the truth is that this final is just one more match crammed into a schedule which features games with bigger stakes.
There was a time – not so long ago -- when the FA Cup thoroughly dominated the English season. The television crews spent a week covering every training session, the papers were filled with speculation over potential lineup changes and the managers were elevated to the role of magicians. It was like a Super Bowl in America - even if you wished to, you couldn't escape the match that would kick off at Wembley at 3 p.m. And, yes, for a while, it did seem like the whole world was watching.
No more. If you're in it, you sure want to win it, so Saturday's Wembley affair is high stakes for the participants. But let’s not kid ourselves: the rest of the football world will be looking ahead to Sunday when the riveting Barclays League title race resumes.
WHO TO WATCH: Let’s start with Chelsea and Roberto Di Matteo. He’s probably thinking more about Bayern Munich than Liverpool this weekend. Working in Di Matteo's favor is the fact that it doesn't seem to matter whom he fields: since taking over for the embattled Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo has done everything right. (Maybe he doesn't really pick the squad, but simply puts names in a hat? However the boss does it, it works.)
Liverpool has had another of those strange seasons when even the most loyal members of the Kop have to be wondering whether Kenny Dalglish really is the long-term answer. Yes, the Reds won the Carling Cup (albeit on penalties … against a Championship side,) and, yes, they've reached Wembley again, but their weekly form in the league is poor.
They come off a dismal home loss to Fulham and are 34 points behind their Manchester rivals. Moreover, Liverpool has not won a title in more than two decades, and has never won one since the Premier League was formed.
Working for Liverpool this weekend is the obvious fact that Dalglish trots out one team on Cup occasions, then hides it for league matches. Even Andy Carroll has produced big goals in Cup play, though that still doesn’t excuse the money they paid for him from Newcastle.
Chelsea will be aware that the Liverpool they'll see on Saturday will be inspired by Steven Gerrard, a man who also seems to save his best performances for the biggest occasions. What Di Matteo will be hoping is that suddenly-revived Fernando Torres, who left Liverpool when Carroll arrived (and performed just as abysmally for the Blues as Carroll is for the Reds) is not just being a tease.
Torres buys time for Didier Drogba, the man Chelsea absolutely has to have fit and rested for the Champions League final. If Di Matteo can get away from Wembley without using Drogba more than 30 minutes and lifts a trophy in the bargain nobody at Stamford Bridge will complain.
Liverpool may have its own Torres in the sudden arrival of Luis Suarez, who spent much of the season either creating controversy or missing chances that you believed might have been taken by someone on the youth roster. Suarez knocked a hat trick home last weekend – all three goals of magnificent quality - and he may be ready to put 2011-12 behind him in style.
TRECKER’S TAKE: It’s hard to bet against Chelsea, especially after watching Liverpool’s wheels fall off against Fulham. The Reds need a lot of help.
NEWCASTLE V MANCHESTER CITY (LIVE Sunday on FOX Soccer, 8:30 a.m. ET)
WHAT THIS IS: The de-facto title decider. A win here means that Manchester City just have to see off QPR at home on the final day.
WHO TO WATCH: This is a huge game, and let’s start on City’s side of the ball. They were very professional on Monday against Manchester United with Vincent Kompany showing why he’s one of the players of the year. Impeccable on defense and able to score when needed, the big Belgian has been brilliant.
David Silva looks like he’s out of puff but Yaya Toure has shouldered the load and the twin Argentine attack of Carlos Tevez and Kun Aguero makes City more than a handful. Gareth Barry had a magnificent game in midfield against United and Pablo Zabaleta is very dangerous up and down the right flank.
Newcastle are this season’s overachievers. Demba Ba and Pappis Cisse have been deadly — Cisse’s second goal against Chelsea Wednesday has to be the goal of the season — but it is Hatem Ben Arfa and Yoahn Cabaye who have made this team tick. Credit also Fabricio Coloccini—he had a poor game against Wigan but has been superb all season long.
TRECKER’S TAKE: This is it. If City can see of Newcastle, the title has to be theirs. If they cannot…
ARSENAL V NORWICH
WHAT THIS IS: A must win game for Arsenal, who are in jeopardy of tossing away a Champions League slot with two games to play.
WHO TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Robin van Persie and Alex Song, the two men who are carrying the Gunners to the finish line. Van Persie’s goal production has dipped but he’s still justly the player of the year; Song has been the architect and water-carrier especially after Mikel Arteta was lost for the season.
Sadly, there’s not much else out there for Arsenal. They have an erratic back line, a very average midfield that shows little consistency and they increasingly look out of ideas. Aaron Ramsey has been dreadful and while you’d like to cut him some slack after his horrible leg injury, the fact is he’s not getting the job done.
Perhaps they are lucky in facing a similarly under-manned Norwich side that looks totally spent. The Canaries have dropped three straight including a true thumping from Liverpool. Grant Holt is expected back after he was rested but the attack isn’t the issue: defense is. American Zach Whitbread is iffy again (groin) and John Ruddy is facing too many shots.
TRECKER’S TAKE: You would expect Arsenal to win it: they’ve been very good at home and the Canaries look like a team that is out of gas. But the Gunners can’t get past sides that park the bus; if that’s how Paul Lambert has his men play, it could be a slog in London.
MANCHESTER UNITED V SWANSEA (LIVE Sunday on FOX Soccer, 10:30 a.m. ET)
WHAT THIS IS: Manchester United’s chance to pick up three points at the expense of a slick Welsh slide.
WHO TO WATCH: Credit Swans for staying up and giving us some great entertainment to boot. But last weekend’s no-defense derby against Wolves showed they can leak goals and they may just be the tonic for a sagging Red Devils team that needs a win to keep the heat on.
Sir Alex Ferguson got his tactics all wrong in the Manchester Derby, but don’t expect him to play cautious football here: Valencia, Nani and Wayne Rooney will all be flying at Michel Vorm’s goal. He’s one of the best keepers of the season (maybe the best) but he’ll face a lot. Swans’ leading scorer, Danny Graham, will be the lone man running up top.
TRECKER'S TAKE: This United is not the United of old. I would be shocked if they lost to Swans on their home turf…but then again, I was shocked by their results against Wigan and Everton. This is the match where we find out if Fergie’s boys have anything left in the tank.