FA Cup semi-final weekend has a long standing tradition with me. Manchester United, Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, all brought here with their own individual tale of success and within touching distance of the second greatest prize in the domestic game (the first being ten minutes on the photocopier with Charlotte Jackson at the Sky Sports News Xmas party). It's the weekend, the weather's usually nice, it's a mini festival of football and there are few better excuses for two successive days parked in a beer garden.
The luck of the draw had mercifully spared us from the prospect of seeing the all-Manchester bun fight in the final, and given us a formula of one “a big club” against one “not a big club” to look forward to at the end of the season. The only question though, was who would the gods choose to cast in these roles. A title-topping United? The lavish pretenders of City? The stylish and rejuvenated Bolton? Or Robert Huth's face?
City vs United was first to commence, although the teams didn't seem to realise this until about 20 minutes in. Both set up in the increasingly popular and hideously risk free 4-2-3-1 formation and seemed content to just gently prod and jab at each other from the relative safety of their own half. At times it felt like watching two nervous penguins being forced to box.
Michael Carrick, who was presumably as bored of hearing chants about City's trophy drought as he was of actually playing football, decided to liven things up by giving possession to Yaya Toure, a man whose father was apparently a monster truck. Three seconds later and we had a game on our hands. Only we didn't really, United could never seem to rouse their flaccid, ineffectual game plan sufficiently to find a leveller, nor could they rely on any of their opponents to gift them a way back in.
It was almost painful to watch. Owen Coyle's men, who clearly miss Stuart Holden like the Go Compare man probably misses his old life, completely surrendered both the ball
The final whistle was greeted by rapturous applause from the blue end and saw former England captain Rio Ferdinand throw his toys out of the pram so hard they almost broke orbit. Having to be visibly restrained following a Mario Balotelli gesture, he came within inches of doing the old Gattuso with David Platt, who incidentally is looking more and more like a startled egg every day.
Contrast this nervy, probing affair to the Madrid/Barca game I sat through some two hours later. If the Manchester derby was two teams gently caressing one another, waiting for the briefest of gaps to appear in their emotional armour, just long enough to steal a kiss, then El Clásico was a pair of greased up doormen with necks like upturned mixing bowls, rolling around on a nightclub floor determined to make the other one wear a curly blonde wig.
Regardless, with a slightly sore head and a funny taste in my mouth, the second game rolled around and I resumed the ardours task of putting my feet up and watching a game of football, much like Paul Scholes had done the previous afternoon. What followed next, despite being billed as the less enthralling of the two contests, astounded me.
Bolton, on the precipice of burying the god-awful reputation they had under Allardyce by actually playing their way to a major final, were spectacularly bent over and smashed for 19 gruesome minutes by a Stoke side who seemed in no mood to cuddle afterwards.
El Clasico was a pair of greased up doormen with necks like upturned mixing bowls, rolling around on a nightclub floor determined to make the other one wear a curly blonde wig.
It was almost painful to watch. Owen Coyle's men, who clearly miss Stuart Holden like the Go Compare man probably misses his old life, completely surrendered both the ball, and their tags as pre-match favourites within the opening few minutes. By the end of the 90 they'd had their pockets turned out for their dignity and self-respect as well. Stoke ran out 5-0 winners in the end with all goals coming from open play. Lee Dixon having to leave his “Stoke score from throws” analogy at home for Match of The Day.
So, on paper the final looks to be an intriguing encounter. Man City, a team who have struggled to find a way through resolute, well-organised defences are up against one of the hardest teams in the country to break down. Stoke on the other hand, who despite what we saw against Bolton, have become gradually more dependant upon set-pieces and Rory Delap's forearms and will have to play a team with the average height and build of a genetically modified race of supermen, who are specifically designed to repel long balls.
It makes it a difficult game to call. Despite City's rabid, frothing erection for a trophy, they're going to be pitted against exactly the type of team they could come-a-cropper against. And, after x-squillion pounds of investment, wouldn't it be just like football to have the most unglamorous team in the league deny them at the final hurdle?
£115 a ticket? Bargain.
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