The FA Cup Third Round is over. Premier League clubs were reminded that playing in their lucrative league doesn’t give them a divine right to qualify in the FA Cup - they have to earn their stripes. So far, the Big Four are in the clear, save for Liverpool who need to go through a replay.
Rafa Benitez cut a forlorn figure at Kenilworth Road, after his team were made to look ordinary by League One Luton in the 1-1 draw. He is guilty of underestimating Luton by resting Fernando Torres, while the other half of his lucky charm, Steven Gerrard is injured.
Without both players, Liverpool were unconvincing at the front and they were fortunate to capitalize on a Luton error in the 74th minute. Andriy Voronin’s shot was blocked by Luton goalkeeper Dean Brill, and the rebound fell nicely for Peter Crouch to tap into an empty net.
However, Liverpool’s grip on the match was so weak that the slim lead was erased easily. Luton launched their attacks ferociously and equalized three minutes later. Drew Talbot whipped in a cross towards Dave Edwards. Riise got there first but a goal was created out of nowhere when he diverted the ball in. The own goal sparked wild celebrations in the Luton camp but for Liverpool, there is a sense of their promising season fizzling to an anti-climax.
Benitez admitted his side had been below their best and said: “We worked hard but when you score a goal you have to use your experience. We conceded in three minutes and that was really disappointing.”
Luton will appreciate the replay which can generate some revenue for the club which is currently in administration and without a white knight, on the doorstep of bankruptcy. The players have only received two weeks wages in the last two months and most could be sold if no positive resolution comes out of Monday’s deadline. Under such circumstances, kudos to the players for fighting as if their lives depend on the match.
Kevin Blackwell said: “My team went out and did a job and made Liverpool look poor. We edged them in the chances and with a bit more guile we would have won the game quite comfortably.”
I doubt if Benitez is in a good mood after what has happened in the last week or so. Hours before this match, he was put in an awkward position after some reports pointed out that the owners are on the lookout for managers, instead of the players he has recommended. Judging from the rumors, Benitez’s last stand in Anfield is no longer a question of if but when.
Benitez responded to speculation that he will be forced out by American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks by pledging his future to Liverpool.
He said: “I love the club, I love the fans, I want to stay. I have two more years on my contract and if I can stay for more will be really happy. I think the people who own the club want the same but do I need to ask them that question every day? We are working together trying to improve the squad now and for the future.”
Well said. But loyalty alone is not enough to get into the good books of the owners. Especially when Liverpool are now 12 points behind Arsenal in the Premier League title chase and have a tough nut (Inter Milan) to crack in the Champions League. Results are crucial and if you can help them save money in the process, all the better.
Liverpool’s owners mentioned about “inferiority complex” in Liverpool’s match against Manchester United but they will certainly not be feeling inferior against Luton, it is a lack of energy, creativity and penetration.
It is surprising that the Reds are jaded. I mean all the players are supposed to have enough rest with Benitez’s rotation policy, right? If they still appear lethargic, then Benitez should just stick to a core group of players and make minor adjustments as needed. Not the erratic policy where players put in fine performance in one match and worry if they are going to feature in the next.
As for Arsenal, they advanced into the fourth round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 win away to Championship side Burnley. Wenger fielded a second-string team and Lehmann made the most of a rare start in a season by keeping a clean sheet.
Burnley took the game to Arsenal and Wenger admitted as much. The second tier club, languishing in mid-table, gave the young Gunners a severe test even after the 60th minute dismissal of midfielder Kyle Lafferty and two goals from Eduardo and Nicklas Bendtner respectively at Turf Moor.
Wenger said: “Burnley played well and they had a big moment when they missed early chance with the header that hit the bar. If it had gone in, at 1-0 down against Burnley in the manner that they played, it would have been difficult for us.
“Even when we took our chance, Burnley pushed again and deserve credit for the way that they played. I’m surprised that they are where they are in the Championship. That division must be a tough league and I think we are much better off in the Premier League!”
Defeat leaves Burnley to concentrate solely on securing a play-off spot in the Championship, but manager Owen Coyle admitted he was heartened by Wenger’s praise for his team.
He said: “Arsene Wenger came up to me after the game and he said that ‘We got lucky,’ so I take that as a compliment.”
Eduardo and Bendtner are not Wenger’s favored weapons of choice but they are certainly useful when called upon to perform the task. The only difference between the two clubs were the composure and guile in front of goal. If Burnley had a clinical striker to deploy, the situation could be markedly different today. They also conceded cheap goals at the back but overall, the players gave a good account of themselves by playing the game at a high tempo and putting pressure on Arsenal.
Wenger have delivered results even if his team is not at their fluent best and more importantly, at lesser financial outlay. Liverpool will no doubt be interested to know how the Gunners reserve team can get the job done as effectively as the senior squad. Benitez can look up to his counterpart in the transfer market and though it will be a tough act to follow, it is the only way to save his skin.