Aston Villa is struggling after a terrible run of defeats over the holidays. It’s likely O’Leary will be telling his players that they will be able to focus more on the league and that cup competition is not for them. It’s been that way for the last few years as Villa continue to fail to get past the third round. But try telling Villa fans that the cup doesn’t matter. In fact, most fans will not forget very quickly that their team, not so long ago, was battling for points just above the drop zone.
Managing soccer is a cruel game and patience wears thin when results are not going the right way. That’s the case for O’Leary. Last year, his Villa made a late run and just missed out on European qualification. Can the former Irish international do it again? The task seems much tougher this time around.
Meanwhile, Manchester City and Irish defender Richard Dunne tried his hardest to get a goal back for his Blues in a 1-0 loss to Oldham Athletic. He looked desperate as the game wore on. Try as he might, he just couldn’t get full on the ball to smack it home or play just a little touch. Dunne made his way forward a good few times as City were unable to equalize.
Kevin Keegan, like O’Leary, didn’t venture out to the sidelines to give instructions or simply to gee up his side. Keegan sat down bundled up in his sweats and hat, feeling sorry for himself. His expression of dismay said it all. The City manager was a far cry from the animated arms-in-the-air manager when his side tied 1-1 with Arsenal over the holidays. Guess the cup is not as important to Keegan as staying alive in the premier. Perhaps Keegan should take a closer look at the fighting spirit Dunne showed even though the chips were down.
Manchester United rested Roy Keane for the game against Exeter and the non-leaguers are the talk of the cup. United’s manager, Alex Ferguson, said he was so sorry and that he would be fielding his first team in the replay to avoid embarrassment. All the new kids on the block at Old Trafford were given a chance, including Irish forward Liam Miller. He was replaced later by the in-form Paul Scholes but to no avail. Not even the further additions of Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith could deny Exeter their already legendary draw. But it’s not over yet. There is still a long way to go and United have to travel to Exeter, where unnecessary pressure has built up for them to win. It’s also an extra game that the Red Devils could have done without. Ferguson might be biting his tongue after he vowed to start his first team in the replay. Hopefully, John O’Shea is back in the lineup for that one.
Mick McCarthy is at it again in the cup. His Sunderland came from a goal down to beat Crystal Palace, 2-1, at the Stadium of Light. It was sweet revenge for Mick and his boys as Palace were the ones who knocked them out in the semifinal last year. It’s worth a second look at McCarthy’s squad as all the Irish players seemed to have disappeared. Seems Mick has gone from his Irish click to having no friends in football. He promised to build a new team at Sunderland and he’s done just that. His Black Cats are in third place in the league on 50 points with Ipswich on top with 55 and Wigan on 53.
Topping the Irish stories in the cup is Robbie Keane, who scored the winner for Spurs against Brighton. Keane hit a superb goal in the 83rd minute to see off Brighton’s brave efforts. Interesting to see Keane and Jermain Defoe in partnership for this game.
The cup came up with some dodgy moments for the big guns. Arsenal was forced to come from a goal down to win 2-1 against Stoke. Middlesbrough had to do the same thing against Notts County. Chelsea found themselves 1-nil down to Scunthorpe after only 8 minutes but the Blues eventually won 3-1.
Teams who have to live and fight another day like Exeter are Cardiff, who tied 1-1 with Blackburn Rovers, and Watford, same score with Fulham. Other notable victories like Oldham and Sheffield Untied were Wolves 2, Millwall 0; Derby 2, Wigan 1; Yeovil 3, Rotherham 0; and West Ham 1, Norwich 0. It’s typical cup fever and as always it’s great see the underdog take a scalp. But for many Irish soccer fans no other cup result mattered more than Celtic beating Rangers 2-1 in the Tennent’s Scottish Cup.
John Hartson scored the winner in the 77th minute as he slipped in behind the Rangers’ defense and slid the ball into the net. Hartson made his way over to the faithful and enjoyed every moment of his glory. The goal has come at a perfect time when Hartson recently secured his signature for the Celts. The faithful love him right now and are probably hoping Hartson can become the next goal-scoring god at Parkhead. It’s a tall order for the Welshman to emulate the likes of Henrik Larsson.
Celtic’s win was more about catching up on the two defeats by Rangers back in November. It was more about how Hartson combined with Chris Sutton, who opened the score on the day for Celtic. Ultimately it was about discipline for the Old Firm, who lost the cool in a recent game when Sutton was sent off among ugly scenes.
Alex McLeish described Celtic’s goals as cheap, condemning his own defense. Martin O’Neill said, “Any Old Firm win is a big win. I thought we deserved to win the match, but deserving to and actually winning it are two different things.” Such has been the case for Celtic in the Champions League. Sutton reminded the faithful, “Rangers are a very good side and there is still a long way to go in the league.” Sutton also reminded fans that his partnership with Hartson has also a long way to go.