Arsenal likely to deliver a KO punch

Article by K. Anand

IF there is one thing that separates the FA Cup from other well-known football competitions is that it has remained true to its totally random match selection and knock-out format from day one.

Some competitions have had specific conditions as to how teams can be grouped or paired up in elimination rounds since the inaugural tournament, while others have evolved over time, as the tournament expanded, to apply such conditions.

Of course, there are some, like the FIFA World Cup 2010 UEFA (European) qualifying rounds, which suddenly came up with a rule to have seeding in the play-offs for the final four European spots, when the powers that be – hands-up Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini – realised that either two from France, Russia and Portugal may end up being paired together.

There is good and bad where seeding is concerned, but nothing opens up a competition for all and sundry like a purely random selection.

Which brings me to tomorrow’s FA Cup quarter-final tie between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford (1.15am Sunday morning in Malaysia).

The result from the previous times these two English Premier League (EPL) giants have met in the FA Cup, especially over the past 13 years (after Arsenal’s emergence under manager Arsene Wenger), have been mixed.

There have been four meetings – 1998/99 semi-final, 2002/03 5th Round, 2004/05 Final and 2007/08 5th Round – with the overall ‘result’ across these matches being 2-2.

All this will count for nought though as the epic battle continues tomorrow.

Let alone the fans, but both teams’ management and players could really do without having such an important match right smack in the middle of their tight EPL race.

Not to mention, the schedule also pits both teams to face each other either before or after their respective UEFA Champions League final 16 knock-out second leg matches.

Arsenal had a grueling contest last Tuesday and ended up being eliminated from Europe. So, I believe, they have an advantage over Man Utd in this respect.

This is because the Gunners will have some added motivation to remain in the hunt for at least two trophies this season.

On the other hand, Man Utd still have a tricky tie against Olympic Marseille, albeit at home, next Tuesday, about 75 hours after their clash with Arsenal.

The first leg ended in a scoreless draw, hence a score draw will be enough for the French club to proceed to the quarter-finals in Europe. Meaning that, Tuesday’s match is now a must-win game for Alex Ferguson’s men.

That, I believe will be the critical factor in this Saturday’s FA Cup tie.

With the Red Devils at the lowest point this season, on the back of two consecutive league defeats (to Chelsea and Liverpool) another loss and elimination from the FA Cup will be something that fans will not accept.

However, Ferguson simply cannot afford to overlook the rewards that come with advancement in the Champions League, especially financially.

Very few managers will envy his position this weekend in trying to find the right balance between picking his players up from the two losses, fielding a strong enough team against Arsenal and then ensuring the best 11 are on the pitch for the Champions League next Tuesday.

Rio Ferdinand is still out, as is Nani, Valencia, Anderson and Park Ji-sung. Nemanja Vidic is back from suspension, however, after serving his one-match ban for the two yellow cards he earned against Chelsea.

For Arsenal, Theo Walcott, Alex Song and new number one Wojciech Szczesny will not be playing, as is Thomas Vermaelen and Cesc Fabregas too.

But Robin van Persie will continue his personal unfinished business after the ‘enforced’ rest he had to contend with in the match against Barcelona.

So, my prediction for the weekend’s top attraction in European football is simply expect Arsenal to progress to the FA Cup semi-finals, or at worst, earn the right for a replay back at The Emirates Stadium later this month.

This article was published exclusively by The Star IPad app on Friday March 11, 2011.

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