Reading tea leaves: the FA Cup quarterfinals
Here it comes – thundering towards its inevitable conclusion – the FA Cup! 762 can enter: only 1 can win. After the Carling Cup ended with more a wheeze than a bang and with the Premier League looking like an oh-so-dramatic race between Man U and Chelsea, the FA Cup is our last, best hope for some good giant-killing stuff. For me, it’s an opportunity I can’t pass up: four more predictions founded on the most dubious grounds. Ignorance, willfulness, caprice: I intend to leave no stone unturned, especially now that my campaign to pre-emptively anoint Crystal Palace the winner has founded on the unfortunate rocks of reality.
No matter. Reading survives.
Portsmouth v Birmingham City – 6 March, 7:30am EST
This promises to be an interesting match. Good? Different question. But certaily interesting.
Birmingham City have had an ambivalent run of matches while Portsmouth – well. You know. On paper this should be a match that doesn’t greatly trouble City, with Portsmouth hemmoraging money and players and now legally as well as practically insolvent. But for Pompey the FA Cup has seemed to exist in a little bubble of space removed from reality as they improbably drive deep, each victory more remarkable than the one before. The club is almost certain to drop straight down to League One by 2011, if it doesn’t disappear entirely long before, but they seem intent on their swan song. Perhaps it’s the natural effect of christening each match ABSOLUTELY THEIR LAST EVER!!!!11!
The real problem Pompey face on Saturday – besides, of course, everything - is that Birmingham City play exactly the same way they do: like there’s absolutely no tomorrow. Newly promoted from the Championship City have impressed at almost every turn and play exactly the sort of frantic, never-say-die football Portsmouth used to such great effect against sides who look like they’ll still be there next week. (Perhaps Birmingham City are secretly, desperately insolvent?) I don’t know if Pompey could take a taste of their own medicine.
If Portsmouth win it will be a jaw-dropping triumph at least as great as the last one; so what the Hell, why not? More certainly I’ll say that, either way, I think the winner of this match makes the final.
Fulham v Tottenham Hotspur – 6 March 12:20pm EST
Fulham are coming off a pretty easy run of FA Cup fixtures – they put out Swindon Town and both surviving League Two teams with relative ease. Their recent run in the Premier League has been good, including a victory over Birmingham City, and they’ve just made the Europa League’s round of 16 in their first European campaign since 2003. Spurs are meanwhile perched precariously in 4th, fighting off in turns Liverpool, Man City and Aston Villa and have seen off a scrappy Leeds and a surprisingly challenging Bolton in the FA Cup. Both Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe have shined for them lately and their last meeting against Fulham was a comfortable home win.
On paper this is an easy call. Probably in real life too. Spurs, though they have a talent for letting things go to a replay.
Reading v Aston Villa – 7 March 8:45am EST
The Championship survives! After vanquishing Liverpool, Burnley and West Brom and drawing themselves four points clear of relegation Reading resembles a team possessed. Their triumph over West Brom especially was hard-fought and entirely deserved, unlike Aston Villa’s victory over fellow-sufferers Crystal Palace; but make no mistake that Reading will find Aston Villa made of harder stuff than the others (than January Liverpool, anyway), and hungrier after their Carling Cup near-miss.
But Reading have something crucial that Villa haven’t – hustle. They move the ball, they create opportunities, they careen desperately from one end of the pitch to the other. If Villa haven’t learned their lessons from playing Palace, and their loss to Manchester United, this match may be like a dog playing fetch versus a cat batting a string. Only one really gives a damn.
Reading, because I’d like a Championship side to figure in the semifinals, and Villa haven’t convinced anybody of anything in some while.
Chelsea v Stoke City – 7 March, 11:00am EST
This should be something of a mismatch for a Chelsea side blessed with them in this Cup campaign. Having crawled over the bodies of three Championship sides Chelsea were now certain to face their first Premiership foes. Until last week this match was likely to be a marquee fixture between the up-and-coming Manchester City and their equally nouveau cousins in London. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell Stoke City. They go instead (doubtless with some trepidation) to Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea have had a disturbing run of results in the past month – they’ve gone 2-1-2 in Premier League competition, with losses to Everton and a thrashing at home to the dispatched Man City, a tie to minnows Hull and a loss to Inter Milan in the Champions League besides. Their best result has arguably been their pedestrian FA Cup win. Their top flight results for February contain a worrying trend: in games Chelsea have won or drawn, no one has scored for them but Didier Drogba. In games they’ve lost, Drogba has not scored at all. This is an easy lesson for an athletic and forceful Stoke side: control or eliminate Drogba and you set Chelsea adrift.
Easier said than done, for Stoke’s joy at their Cup run and a streak of solid League performances were undercut this weekend when Ryan Shawcross was sent off weeping for a challenge that left Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsay with a sickening compound fracture. Though the challenge was by no accounts peculiarly brutal – the sending off was for resulting rather than intended violence – the air was let out of Stoke’s balloon and from then they basically surrendered. After the amount of criticism Stoke has received for the physicality of their play manager Tony Pulis may have to dial it back. Even if he doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine Ryan Shawcross – a crucial piece of Stoke’s puzzle – unchastened by last Saturday. If he plays at all.
Prediction: Stoke can’t have come through that unshaken. You don’t need to make many mistakes to be caught out by a team like Chelsea, and their only route to victory is precisely the play that had such horrifying consequences. It would take a lot of stones or a callous disregard for human life – maybe both – to replicate the performance the way Stoke must. Chelsea will win.
Peter Wahlberg is a contributing writer for the 90th minute. You can find his personal blog here.