Sunday, April 06, 2008

Comeuppance for the giant-killers

Well, Barnsley finally met their match. After seeing off both Arsenal and Liverpool, their magical FA Cup run came to an end at the hands of fellow Championship strugglers Cardiff City. A ninth-minute goal from midfielder Joe Ledley, playing for his hometown side, proved to be the difference between the two sides: Cardiff created many more chances, but couldn't tack on an insurance marker. Barnsley had their own chances, though, particularly when Kayode Odejayi broke in alone but could only find the side of the net in what Soccernet described as "quite possibly the worst miss seen at the new Wembley". In the end, Cardiff was deserving of the win and a berth in next month's final against Portsmouth.

What's interesting is how Barnsley cranked it up to beat top-flight sides like Arsenal and Liverpool, but couldn't seem to do the same against a club from their own league. Perhaps it's the downside of an upset: all of a sudden, the expectations are weighing on your shoulders instead of those of the opposition, particularly when matched up against a club that's an underdog in its own right. You can't play the "Nobody believes in us!" card any more, because all of a sudden, everyone believes in you. Meanwhile, the other side can play with the freedom low expectations bring: if they happen to lose, it was the predicted outcome, but if they win, they've knocked off the giant-killers. In Cardiff's case, no one would raise much of a fuss about joining a roster of defeated adversaries that prominently displays such names as Arsenal and Liverpool.

The other aspect of this is the danger of buying into the hype. You pull off a miracle win, and all of a sudden, you start reading your own press clippings and believing you're up there with the best. As a result, maybe you stop putting in the extra effort that carried you this far. You think, 'Ah, this will be easy! We've beaten the best, now we can coast!' This kind of attitude tends to lead to abandoning the hustle and work ethic that made the wins possible. Meanwhile, the new underdogs have you firmly in their sights, and you can bet they aren't slacking off.

The best other example of this I can think of is from this year's CIS basketball championships. After Acadia pulled off a miracle double-overtime win in the semifinals against the five-time defending champion Carleton Ravens, beating the seventh-seeded Brock Badgers for the title must have seemed like a piece of cake. Instead, Brock went out there and pulled off an upset of their own. Granted, there were other factors involved, including the far-too-short turnaround time between the late-night semifinal and the early-afternoon final, but there's still a good chance that Acadia thought the hard work was done. There aren't any guaranteed wins, and no opponent should ever be taken for granted: it's far too easy to go from underdog to target.

Another interesting aspect of Cardiff's win: it's only the second time a Welsh club has advanced to the FA Cup final. The previous appearance was also by Cardiff, back when they beat Arsenal in 1927. As the Globe's esteemed soccer writer Ben Knight pointed out a while back, being Welsh also means that they won't get the UEFA Cup slot reserved for the FA Cup champions even if they win, which is a great injustice.

Sidebar: It's interesting to see Cardiff doing well again. I remember watching them play the Vancouver Whitecaps in an exhibition a couple years back, and I was pretty impressed. For all the bashing it gets, the Championship actually has a decently high calibre of play.

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