The FA Cup

After an hour of this weekend's first quarter final any watcher could have been excused for asking what all the fuss is about. A low-key, low standard game between Portsmouth and Birmingham City didn't, on the face of it, do any justice to the Greatest Cup Competition in the World©. Portsmouth, clearly bereft of confidence, failed to rouse their usually fierce home support whilst Birmingham's toothless performance belied a seemingly inflated league position and lack of quality in attacking areas.

And then the spark was lit by Fredric Piquionne. Some would call it scrappy, or a poacher's finish, but it was the classic FA Cup goal. The ball seems to take on a mind of it's own in the box on these occasions, confusing defenders and strikers alike. Fortune favoured the Frenchman and he stabbed home from inside the six yard box. Now the Pompey Chimes struck and, whereas previously only Jamie O'Hara's performance and effort had matched the occasion, now the whole team responded.

Piquionne's second less than five minutes later was a fine break away effort. Causing havoc in the Birmingham box equalled only by the Fratton End's manic, cathartic celebrations moments later, he outwitted Birmingham's stunned defence and swept home. In one moment all the stress and desperation of financial strife, administration and near certain relegation were ecstatically surmounted. The whole club rose as one and refused to buckle, and how fitting that the FA Cup should provide the scene for this resurrection, however flitting it could prove to be.

Birmingham then rallied and had a perfectly good goal not awarded when Ridgewell forced the ball a good six inches over the line, only for the linesman to inexplicably not see a goal which was obvious even on television from a far inferior angle. That said Ridgewell must himself take some of the blame for not burying a chance from within a yard. McLeish graciously refused to lay all the blame at the feet of the offending official, admitting that the goal may have proven to be only a consolation. One feels the Birmingham fans will not be so magnanimous.

The weekend continued in fine style I though with a raucous cup tie following at Craven Cottage. Spurs will feel that a draw and replay at White Hart Lane leaves them with a decent chance of progressing, and indeed on chances, if not overall play, then Fulham should have won the game. Zoltan Gera was especially culpable, missing a gilt-edged header from the edge of the six yard box.

The game was fast, direct and played in the right spirit, from what I saw, in front of a vocal crowd. The same description could be applied to our game at the Madejski earlier, yet the scoreline and storyline could not be more different.

Firstly Reading deserve all the plaudits for their performance. Without wanting to patronise the Royals they did exactly what a lower league team has to on such occasions, and they actually did it with style and flair in key areas. When Shane Long scored his first - a close range header after Mills flicked on a corner - it was no surprise and no more than they deserved.

Previously Jimmy Kebe had lashed home a left-footed half volley, only for referee Mike Dean to rightly disallow the effort for a push by Simon Church in the build up. From every set piece Reading had looked dangerous, as they did throughout the game. In midfield and defence they were first to every ball; Mills nullified Carew, repeatedly stepping in front of him and winning the ball with ease and midfielders Sugurdsson and Tabb combined industry with effective passing. Only two last ditch Richard Dunne blocks prevented Reading from improving on their lead before Long notched his second after a fine counter attack, involving Sigurdsson then Kebe.

Villa were frankly appalling in the first period. I'm not convinced by the argument that last week's final effected us too much - the second half performance disproved this. Rather we were just not on the pace of the game and not at it against eleven players who were. At any level of football that approach will only end in defeat. A dubious offside decision prevented Carew from scoring but really it would have been a travesty in a first half that saw virtually no threat from any of our attacking players in the face of committed defending.

The second half demanded that we fight for every ball, concentrate completely in defence and use the ball much more intelligently in the final third, whilst matching the workrate of our opponents. Credit to the players that they were able to do this and turned around a seemingly impossible deficit into a 4-2 win. It was never comfortable until Carew blasted home a penalty for his third and our fourth - though Heskey could have wrapped the game up far earlier.

Reading rallied from Villa's early second half onslaught to match us for the last twenty minutes or so. A spectacular goal-line clearance from Ashley Young was emblematic of our defence's efforts in the second period: committed blocks and saves were demanded from all of them. In the end we just about did enough to book a place in semi-final. This should go down as one of the classic FA Cup games, and I suppose from a neutral point of view it was probably great to watch.

Chelsea's comfortable victory over Stoke rounded off the weekend. Lampard scored a deflected goal, Terry a deflected header - both from corners. Stoke huffed and puffed but didn't really threaten the nonetheless unconvincing Hilario. The draw has paired us with Chelsea in the semi-final and I hope Cech's understudy is still between the sticks.

So a fine weekend of knockout football ends with one great story, one classic near-upset, one favourite marching ominously on and one unresolved London derby. No complaints from the fans, I suspect. Here's hoping that Villa can turn over Chelsea at Wembley, and that they sort the pitch + ref out before we get down there.

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