|Emile Heskey in action against|
Liverpool. (Image Source: BBC Sport)
Arsenal through, Liverpool and Man Utd forced to settle for replays amidst shock exits for Premier League giants
The absence of Premier League football this weekend meant that the FA cup fourth round had to live up to its billing, and didn't it do just that. We have always known FA cup weekends to come up with one or two surprises; nonetheless, no one would have predicted the amount of shocks that awaited this weekend.
|Jon Stead celebrates Bradford's first|
goal. (Image Source: BBC Sport)
Beginning with our local entry (Everton had been dispatched in the previous round by West Ham United), joining Liverpool legends Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish in the stands at Anfield was captain Steven Gerrard, who as he approaches the end of his Liverpool career is being closely managed by Brendan Rodgers; his absence here ensured his inclusion for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Chelsea this Tuesday. The atmosphere was as electric as ever with the Kop at their loudest. With Gerrard absent, Jordan Henderson captained the side, whilst Javier Manquillo, Jose Enrique, Joe Allen and Adam Lallana all returned to the starting XI.
As expected, the home side had the majority of possession, although whenever Neil Lennon's Bolton side had a spell in control, they looked comfortable and full of ideas. Still, despite a strike force including Eidur Gudjohnsen and former Liverpool striker Emile Heskey, they finished the match without a shot on target but, crucially, didn't concede either. The first half showcased some quality play from the team in red, but never enough to get on the score-line. Raheem Sterling and fellow countryman Henderson were involved in everything good coming Liverpool's way, with the latter hitting a decent shot that required an equally decent save from Hungarian keeper Adam Bogdan. The Trotters had half-decent chances of their own, but not enough to make a difference, and this resulted to both teams going into half-time goalless.
Lazar Markovic was introduced in the second half and soon had a penalty claim. Replays showed that the foul had happened outside the box, but there was enough contact that a free kick should have been awarded. Referee Kevin Friend further frustrated LFC fans by ignoring penalty appeals after a clumsy challenge by former red Jay Spearing on Henderson in the area. Besides this and further Liverpool chances, the second half was more notable for Bolton's strong defending, earning themselves a return leg in their own backyard, where they feel their chances of progression would be higher. The home supporters were beginning to be out-mourned by their opposition fans, as a return leg began to appear very possible. Liverpool had their chances but couldn't take them, and so the match ended in a goalless draw. A replay was not ideal for Brendan Rodgers, who suddenly has a busy fixture list with this two-parter adding to his Premier League commitments, Europa League preparations and, of course, that vital League Cup clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Away from Anfield, the major FA Cup headlines for the weekend were the shock eliminaiton of Chelsea and Manchester City. Chelsea was the bigger surprise since they were facing a side two divisions below them, are currently the best team in the country, and were two goals up inside 38 minutes. Jonathan Stead pulled one back for the Bantams with a sumptuous strike just before half-time, but even then many would have expected the London giants to finish the game off in the second half; nobody expected Bradford to level things up, never mind win. But win they did, as goals from Filipe Morais, Andy Halliday and Mark Yeates completed the shock of the day, and one of the biggest surprises in the competition's rich history. Jose Mourinho, a two-time Champions League winning coach, described the defeat as a "disgrace" considering the level of their opposition (although he did praise Bradford's performance), and said his side should be ashamed of themselves. With Liverpool at the Bridge in mid-week, the West London side who had been eyeing up a quadruple could be out of two competitions in less than a week.
In Manchester, another scintillating encounter took form as Championship side Middlesbrough took an unlikely lead against Manchester City via Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford. City were playing a very strong team with Kun Aguero present, but they looked clueless as they battled to break the Boro defence, leaving theirs wide open. Their misery was completed when Boro secured the win with a stoppage time goal from Kike. In the aftermath, Manuel Pellegrini was criticised for over-working his squad, after his side were only hours removed from returning after an unusual mid-season trip to Abu Dhabi which included a friendly against Hamburg.
The red half of Manchester are still in the pot but, like their rivals Liverpool, had to settle for a replay after a below average performance led to a goalless draw at League Two side Cambridge United - a result which would have gotten greater attention had the major upsets not occurred the following day. And they weren't over: Tottenham Hotspur are also out of the competition as Mauricio Pochettino's side fell by two goals to one at home to Leicester City. In addition, Southampton were dumped out - again on home soil - by Alan Pardew's revitalised Crystal Palace side in a mouth-watering 3-2 encounter. And Gylfi Sigurdsson made the headlines for scoring a cracker and getting a red card as Swansea troubles continued with a 2-1 exit to Blackburn Rovers. Reading, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County all made it through to the next round as well. Replays are to determine the fate of Preston North End and Sheffield United and Sunderland and Fulham.
Sunday was a little less explosive, although FA Cup holders Arsenal just about managed a 3-2 win over Brighton, with German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil on the score-sheet after a long injury break, along with Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky, who poached the winning goal. Aston Villa and West Ham United also secured their spots in the fifth round with wins, as did Stoke City on Monday night.
With the two main favourites out, Liverpool have a strong chance of going all the way to Wembley come May to mark Steven Gerrard's exit with a bang. But Arsenal are also dreaming of retaining the trophy, which is never an easy task, and Wayne Rooney also has his eyes on what could finally be his first FA Cup winner's medal to complete his collection. And who knows, could Bradford City take their fairytale journey all the way to Wembley? Either way, an exhilarating fourth round has resulted in the most open FA Cup in years, as literally anything could happen between now and May 30.