No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.

The magic of the cup returns

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.  Photo: Philip Currie

Arsenal win the 2014 FA Cup.
Photo: Philip Currie

There’s no doubt that the FA Cup has lost some of the lustre and prestige that it once had. The big teams no longer seem to care as much as they used to; the riches offered by the Premier League make that the priority alongside the Champions League for the elite.

Of course the tournament that first undermined the FA Cup was the World Club Cup. Manchester United’s hugely controversial (and utterly misguided) decision to withdraw from the FA Cup for a season (1999/2000) in order to play in the inaugural World Club Cup showed that they, and more incredibly the FA, were prepared to dump the FA Cup for what they thought was a better offer.

Manchester United failed to become World Club Champions in 2000 and the FA failed in their bid to host the 2006 World Cup – the reason that they had encouraged the English champions to participate – so the cunning little plan turned out to be a little lacking in the cunning department.

With the FA prepared to treat their own tournament with such contempt it is little wonder that others started to follow suit. The thread running from that decision all the way through to Manchester City’s decision to return from their winter training camp in Abu Dhabi the night before their FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough last week does not take much unravelling.

No sooner had City bid farewell to the Middle East than their performance went south as they also bid farewell to the FA Cup as Boro recorded a 2-0 win at the Etihad. After the game, Pellegrini said: “I think there are a lot of football reasons rather than Abu Dhabi. They are different things.” Did his players not play any football while in Abu Dhabi? Perhaps not.

City were far from the only big club to be on the receiving end of an FA Cup shock in what was an electric weekend of football. Chelsea were dumped out at home 4-2 by Bradford despite having led 2-0. In the build up to the match Mourinho said that it would be a ‘disgrace’ if his side lost the tie and to be fair he labelled them exactly that afterwards and spoke of being ashamed. Disgrace remained rather a theme at Stamford Bridge for the rest of the week thanks to the efforts of Diego Costa.

Elsewhere in the tournament, Manchester United’s millionaires headed to Cambridge and received a scholarly and humbling lesson. A goalless draw meant that they remain in the competition and Cambridge can celebrate a replay at Old Trafford.

It’s a game that’s not bringing too much cheer to Manchester United fans. As a result of some fans complaints I’ve just discovered Manchester United’s extraordinary season ticket policy: apparently season ticket holders are all required to buy a ticket for home FA Cup matches and if they don’t then their season ticket will be suspended for one league game.

The report I read suggested that ticket prices for the replay against Cambridge would cost up to £50. Some season ticket holders have indicated that they will boycott the Cambridge game. You could hardly blame them and indeed I would urge them to. If Manchester United can’t beat fourth tier opposition away, then they’ve got some cheek in demanding that their most loyal supporters pay to watch the replay.

As football supporters, if we allow clubs to carry on treating us like that then who knows how far they’ll be tempted to go. Sometimes you just have to take a stand; or in this case a seat on the sofa and watch the game on TV instead.

With so many top flight teams eliminated, the few left in the competition (including Manchester United) will really fancy their chances of winning it. Hopefully that might mean that they approach the tournament a bit differently. Nigel Clough argues that the upsets of last weekend are simply “down to the Premier League lads not taking the cups as seriously as the other players.”

It would be great for the FA Cup if they did. The FA would surely welcome such a change in attitude among the Premier League clubs but it is the FA themselves who must bear considerable responsibility for their flagship cup competition becoming a pale imitation of its former self.

There’s some way still to go to restore the credibility of the tournament (and whoever came up with the idea of using pink balls for the FA Cup cannot be considered credibility-restorer–in-chief) but I hope that last weekend marks a turning point. As the big boys produced a disappearing act, something of the magic of the cup returned.