LONDON – The downgrading of the F.A. Cup, football’s oldest knockout competition, continues. Saturday’s final between Manchester City and Stoke City will be one of the lowest profile of all-time.
Not because the participants are not from English football’s traditional elite, but because for only the third time in history there are league matches the same day.
Instead of monopolizing the spotlight, the Wembley showdown will play second fiddle to Blackburn vs. Manchester United, where Sir Alex Ferguson’s team should clinch the point it needs to secure its 19th title around half an hour before the final kicks off.
There are three other Premier League games starting at 12:45 p.m., two and a quarter hours before the final.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis called the scheduling, caused by the necessity for Wembley to be free for two weeks before the Champions League final between United and Barcelona “disgusting.”
He said: “It’s traditionally a special game on its own at the end of the season but that’s not the case this year.”
The Premier League should have insisted clubs play on Sunday or Monday, but Sky Sports, which doesn’t have the contract for the F.A. Cup (indeed, the competition barely exists on the station) had other ideas.
It is one thing for many clubs to field weakened teams in the competition, but when the final becomes the dessert to the Premier League’s main course it is easy to understand why Spurs manager Harry Redknapp believes Saturday’s game will mean “virtually nothing” except to fans of City and Stoke.
All of which should not detract from what could be a fascinating final between teams with contrasting styles and spending potential.
Manchester City splashed out £127 million last summer on new recruits, Stoke a humble £11 million. Roberto Mancini’s side guaranteed fourth place with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Spurs last Monday, the team still struggling to get off the leash, which the Italian tends to keep it on.
Carlos Tevez, City’s main and at times only goal threat, has recovered from a hamstring injury, but it is difficult to see Mancini opting for the sort of offensive game that Pulis’ Stoke prefers.
Stoke is an easy and unfair target for criticism because of its so-called long-ball style. When Barcelona play the ball 50 meters it is a long pass, when Stoke does this it is a long ball.
Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger compared Stoke’s style to rugby, overlooking the fact Stoke has had fewer yellow and red cards than the Gunners this season, while when Arsenal was winning trophies it had one of the worst disciplinary records in England.
Stoke is one of the few teams to play with two orthodox wingers in Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington. Strikers Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters are a handful for any defense, while the midfield trio of Marc Wilson, Dean Whitehead and Rory Delap are industry personified.
Pulis is free of the ego problems that Mancini has with some of his players, who think nothing of showing public dissent toward their manager, who faces a no-win situation today.
Given the money it has spent City is expected to lift the Cup. If it does, credit will be given to the amount of cash invested; should it lose, Mancini will be blamed for not making the most of City’s expensive (and in many cases, overpriced) imports. David Silva, YaYa Toure and James Milner have been impressive. Edin Dzeko and Jerome Boateng lead the list of those who, so far, have underachieved.
In the 1-0 semifinal win over United, City showed the attacking potential that is too often kept under wraps. Stoke will go for it, though the suspicion remains Mancini will have his cautious hat on at Wembley.
But whatever the excitement level — the last four games between the teams have ended in draws so be prepared for extra time — the F.A. Cup final is destined to be overshadowed by events at Blackburn preceding it.
In England the Premier League rules supreme.
LORD TRIESMAN lost his role as chairman of the Football Association a year ago because he was the victim of entrapment, a secretly taped conversation.
Melissa Jacobs, a former ministerial aide he believed he could trust, sold the details of their dinner date to a Sunday tabloid. The disclosures were little more than personal thoughts about England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
Its publication cost Lord Triesman his job with the F.A, another victim of a tabloid “kiss and tell.” He could not deny anything as it was all recorded.
Last week Lord Triesman told the House of Commons select committee that four FIFA members sought bribes in return for backing England’s failed 2018 (World Cup bid, the revelation as surprising as Arsenal conceding a goal from a set-piece.
I have no doubt of the validity of Triesman’s allegations against FIFA vice president Jack Warner, who always seems to be mentioned in any controversy, Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz, Brazilian Ricardo Teixeira and Thai Worawi Makudi.
Trieman’s claims will make people suspect there could be more than just two villains on world football’s most powerful committee.
FIFA has become a discredited body with a third of the executive committee having various fingers pointed at them, a worrying — to put it mildly -statistic, but when Blatter is re-elected for a fourth term on June 1, do not expect any new heads to roll.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.