Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It Happened in England: FA Cup Quarterfinals

The FA Cup was down to eight sides this weekend, let's look at how they turned out.

Aston Villa 2-0 West Bromwich Albion
It's hard to believe that Villa was once having trouble scoring goals. They have now managed to score twice in three of their last five matches, including this 2-0 win. Fabian Delph got it started in the 51st and Scott Sinclair sealed the deal, prompting the Villain faithful to rush the pitch before the final whistle. Backup keeper Shea Given kept the clean sheet that helped see Aston Villa through to Wembley for the semi-finals.

Bradford City 0-0 Reading
It was a cold day in West Yorkshire and the teams certainly played like it. Only one shot made it on goal and the sides will meet again next Monday for the right to go to Wembley.

Liverpool 0-0 Blackburn Rovers
The real story of this game will be how Martin Skrtel recovers from his scary head injury suffered just a few minutes into the match. He tipped over awkwardly while going for a 50/50 header and fell hard on his head. He had to be stretchered off after laying motionless on the pitch for nearly ten minutes. As far as the match, Liverpool will wonder how they failed to notch a goal. They held a 71-29 percent possession advantage, blasted 19 shots (four on target), but had zero goals. The replay is yet to be scheduled, but expect it sometime in the next week or two.

Manchester United 1-2 Arsenal
This was probably the best match of the weekend in any competition in any country. The defending FA Cup champions Arsenal got the worst possible draw in a sea of favorable opponents. They could have played any of the lower opposition, Premier League bottom feeders West Bromwich or Aston Villa, but instead had to travel to Old Trafford, where they hadn't won in nearly nine years.

The game was about as free flowing as you will see in English football. Both teams were going for broke right from the start and Arsenal was the first to score. United's back line failed to account for the sneaky offensive abilities of left back Nacho Monreal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was making one of his usual darting runs with the ball and managed to pick out the Spanish full back, who was completely unmarked. Monreal made easy work of David De Gea to put Arsenal in front.

The lead would last all of four minutes. Angel Di Maria had an awful match (more on that in a bit), but he mad one great cross to set up Wayne Rooney for a perfect header that found the back of the net.

The open play continued throughout the second half, but neither team had many stellar chances.

The second half was when the real fireworks kicked in. Things remained wide open, although they also got physical. Six of the match's eight yellow cards came after the interval. Marouane Fellaini was booked for persistent fouling, Ashley Young for a bad challenge, and Marcos Rojo for another overzealous tackle all within five minutes.

During that spree of aggressive play, Antonio Valencia flubbed a back pass aimed at David De Gea. Former Manchester United man Danny Welbeck saw this as an opportunity. He jumped on the loose ball, slipped by the desperate De Gea, and rolled it into the wide open goal to give Arsenal a 2-1 lead.

After that, United was beyond frustrated. Unable to contain Arsenal without conceding free kicks, they attempted to throw numbers forward and overwhelm the often shaky Arsenal defense. That failed quite miserably as well, leading to more frustration. It all came to a head in the 76th minute when Angel di Maria went down just outside of the box rather easily. So easily, in fact, he was booked for diving, which is really nothing new for him. He took exception to the call, made physical contact with referee Michael Oliver, and was sent off.

Mr. Di Maria's behavior was indicative of his time at Manchester United. He has shown flashes of brilliance, only to be followed up by childish decision making. His antics today, which included multiple incidents of complaining before the fateful dive, just added to the pile. He is quickly rivaling Cristiano Ronaldo in my personal “whiniest players” rankings.

Adnan Januzaj joined this party was booked for simulation in the 87th minute for an even worse display of flopping. He had Nacho Monreal beat along the outside heading into the penalty area as he felt a slight touch on his arm. After a full two steps, Januzaj fell to the turf with his arms flailing and demanding a penalty be given. Michael Oliver rightly laughed away his protests with a yellow card.

These dives were outrageous and both Januzaj and Di Maria should be nothing short of embarrassed. In both cases, had they simply continued their runs they might have created a chance to tie the score and change the fortune of the match. Not to mention the possibility to change their reputation as floppers. Instead, they let their stupidity get in the way and each contributed in their own way to Manchester United's FA Cup demise.

United was unable to press a real threat once down to ten men. In fact, they were lucky that Arsenal made a mess of a few counterattacks that very well could have ended in back breaking goals.

It was Arsenal's first win in Old Trafford since 2006, and they advance to the second consecutive FA Cup Semi-final. They have to be considered the favorites to win it all for a second year in a row.

In the draw for the semi-final, Arsenal was rewarded for their efforts with a date against the winner of the Bradford City-Reading replay. Aston Villa and their pitch invaders head to Wembley to face the winner of Liverpool against Blackburn Rovers.

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