Sunday, March 09, 2008

A weekend of Cupsets

I'm still in a bit of shock after watching Manchester United knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth yesterday. United dominated the match, and looked sure to score at many points, including when a Michael Carrick effort was cleared off the line, but they could just never put the ball in the net. A perhaps overconfident halftime substitution saw Tomas Kuszczak take over in the goal for Edwin Van der Sar, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson can't really be blamed: at that point, it seemed inevitable one of United's efforts would slide home, and given the crucial fixtures upcoming in United's quest for league and European glory, it made sense to try and get Van der Sar some rest.

Kuszczak had played pretty well thus far this campaign in the limited action he saw as well, so it didn't seem like an unreasonable decision at the time. Unfortunately for United, Kuszczak made a critical error, taking Milan Baros down on a breakaway (one of Portsmouth's only legitimate scoring chances of the game), and received a red card as a result. Defender Rio Ferdinand was forced to replace him in goal, and guessed the right way on the ensuing penalty, but that wasn't enough to stop a terrific blast from Sulley Muntari. Portsmouth then tenaciously hung on for the last few minutes, and in the process booked a place in the final four. It was their first victory at Old Trafford since 1957.

In the aftermath of this shocking debacle, Sir Alex found perhaps the conventional scapegoat: the referee. However, his comments were unusually vitriolic. "It's absolutely ridiculous," Ferguson told the Associated Press. "Managers get sacked because of things like that and he's going to referee a game next week. He's not doing his job properly and he needs to be assessed. I'm assessed as a manager, players are assessed, referees should be assessed properly by the right people. That performance today should not be accepted by our game." It didn't seem quite that bad from my perspective watching it, but there were certainly many things that went uncalled: apparently, you can do anything to superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and get away with it. Good on Ferguson for speaking his mind: those kind of quotes are what us journalists love to hear, as they're far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill 'We gave it our all' stuff. Unfortunately, the FA was not impressed, and there may be a fine in the offing.

The most interesting story of the weekend came from another game, though. League Championship side Barnsley, fresh off a defeat of Liverpool at Anfield, slayed their second giant in a row with a win against Chelsea to put themselves into the semifinals. That's something you don't see every day: Barnsley, a mere four points clear of the Championship relegation zone, knocking off one of the few sides still in the hunt for the Premiership crown. Manager Simon Davey was appropriately at a loss for words as he spoke to the Associated Press. "I'm speechless at the moment," he said. "I can't believe we've really done it. We're in the semifinal of the cup, I've never been to Wembley."

Two more Championship sides also advanced to the Final Four Sunday. West Bromwich Albion beat Bristol Rovers and Cardiff City knocked off Middlesbrough at the Riverside, leaving Portsmouth as the sole Premiership representative in the competition. This is the greatness of the FA Cup: none of these sides could hope to compete with the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea over a long season, but in elimination play, anything can happen. It will be most interesting to see who winds up in the final.

Related:'s Ben Knight has a great piece on the upsets, including where all the Premiership teams bowed out.

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