Monday, March 19, 2018

A Date From Hell?


Many a lonely man has fallen in love with a beautiful Russian woman online and sent her cash, only to find out she has taken the money and run and was probably never even a woman in the first place.

This summer the Football Association has a date to keep with Mother Russia herself but is currently squabbling with her like a betrayed groom to be, even threatening to call the whole thing off.

How unfavourably aligned are their stars right now.

The apparently state-sponsored murders of a Russian dissident in London and the use of a banned nerve agent to dispatch another in sleepy Salisbury do not bode well for a stress-free visit of the Football Association to Russia in June.

Its president the Duke of Cambridge has already cancelled his trip.

Above the world of football the two nations are at loggerheads, trading insults and expelling each other's diplomats willy-nilly while binning once again any hopes of a healthy relationship.

And England's supporters, already planning their trips with a little trepidation after what happened in Marseille two years ago, will be sighing at yet another external worry.

Keep politics out of sport cry the exasperated; if only that were possible.

At the England v Russia clash at Euro 2016, Russian hooligans charged harmless England supporters inside the Stade Velodrome and attacked others outside with weapons including iron bars, leaving two Englishmen in comas.

Why? Was it merely the thugs' desire to test their nastiness against the inventor of the pastime?

Seasoned watchers were shocked at the level of violence but Russian leaders tut-tutted and even joked about the blatant crimes committed by their citizens, instead of offering the unequivocal condemnation one expects from governments.

Subsequent reports in England suggested the state had encouraged the attacks as part of President Vladimir Putin's asymmetric or 'hybrid warfare' with the West.

As Putin celebrates another election win by fanning the flames of nationalism, it would be a surprise if there is no violence surrounding England's first round games in Volgograd, Niszhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad.

Should Gareth Southgate's men advance, England will play next in Moscow or Rostov-on-Don. The events in France and the well-documented football hooliganism in Russian domestic football do not bode well for a trouble-free summer.

We should forget a unilateral boycott however. That would be the ultimate act of self-harm to the England team and hurt the purity of the sport's greatest competition.

A multi-country opt-out sounds attractive but is logistically impossible this close to the tournament, while it should be remembered that the American refusal to travel to the 1980 Moscow Olympics made no difference to the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan, their stated reason for not participating.

Maybe England's fans will misbehave so badly the team will be sent packing anyway while Russian hooligans can enjoy the luxury of being at home already so can run amok, in theory.

It is tempting to think the press is being unduly alarmist with its slew of scare stories on this topic where every bonehead is given a microphone, a pattern repeated before every major tournament, often by journalists with no experience of being travelling supporters.

Travelling overseas with England in the 1990s I got frustrated with the fantastical coverage of spectator violence coming from Fleet Street, which often bore little reality to the situation on the ground, even from the broadsheet press.

The media should be more responsible and not promote hooliganism before each tournament, pour encourager les autres. But chicanery, standard in a country without a free press, is also one of the prices of a free press in others.

Alas, Russian football racism and violence has a long and blotted copybook so fears of violence cannot be completely dismissed as the usual hooligan hysteria.

In October 2017, Detective Chief Constable Mark Roberts, head of UK policing at Euro 2016 and Russia 2018, said that English fans faced "a genuine threat" in Russia this summer.

"There is an active hooligan issue in Russia," said Roberts, "and it generally operates at a pretty extreme level of violence."

Roberts was quick to admit however that he had full confidence in the Russian police preventing any outbreak of fighting.

Andrei Zakharov, Moscow's deputy chief of police, echoed his reassurance.

"It is definitely safe for British fans to come here," he said last Autumn. "Everything will be secure. There is nothing to be afraid of."

The peaceful unfolding of last summer's Confederations Cup gives cause for hope and we do expect the Russians to act with force when required.

Public disorder in June would be played out in front of a billion worldwide viewers, a feasible scenario which would lead one to think Vladimir Putin will demand his country put on its Sunday Best.

It certainly put on an expensive and flamboyant show for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games as a way of promoting Russia and brand Putin, with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies peppered by a generous helping of nationalism.

Putin's cult of personality is as strong as ever so he will not want the World Cup to be a damp squib as he knows a violence-marred tournament would resonate more than bumping off the odd turncoat with a poisoned cuppa.

At the same time it is hard to know how much the Kremlin cares about its reputation going into the Finals which is an interesting paradox.

In the wake of the Russian athletes' doping scandal, the proxy war in the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the interference in the U.S. Presidential election, the assassinations of various dissidents and the President's boasting about his latest nuclear missiles, one cannot help wonder if merely winning the bidding for 2018 was enough for Putin.

Fortunately for Moscow, Ukraine has failed to qualify as well as the USA, which leaves England as its convenient persona non grata.

The UK Foreign Office is certainly doing little to cool the tension.

Its website warns visitors to Russia to "be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time."

It goes on to warn ethnic minorities of "unwanted attention" and British tourists in general of robbery, dating scams, spiked drinks and "groups of women or children who beg".

It also reminds us that "terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks" such as the bomb on the St. Petersburg metro last year which killed 15 people.

Against this backdrop it is surely incumbent on England fans to behave impeccably, although that in itself sounds comically fanciful.

It is true that these days England's travelling fan army, of which I have been a part many times, are more sinned against that sinning, paying for the baggage of the 1970s and '80s heyday of hooliganism.

Yet at the same time, large groups of them do not help themselves by disrespecting local traditions with their aggressive and xenophobic chanting which plumbs the depths of boorishness, stupidly referencing the Northern Irish conflict, the Taliban or the European Union.

As recently as last week, some Chelsea fans in Barcelona were taunting the Catalans by singing 'You'll always be Spain.' This is not 'banter', this is yobbery.

Gathering in squares to neck beer en masse and covering local monuments with flags is something the Dutch, Germans, Irish and Scots do too but without any hint of trouble. Yet all too regularly with England fans,  as the evening wears on and the alcohol takes effect, the sound of smashing glass, animalistic roars and police sirens arrives.

Being happy, enjoying the local culture and hospitality and making friends should be high on any England fan's agenda but too often it is not. Russia is a proud and special nation and deserves respect, not forthright assertions of superiority from foreigners on its soil.

While congregating en masse in the closest approximation to an English boozer is not wrong in itself and you can forgive disorientated young men ill at ease overseas for thinking there is safety in numbers, the risk of trouble increases with that behaviour too.

So if the Three Lions's travelling support make a point of being good tourists in Russia this summer but are still targeted by the local louts, at least the watching world will be in no doubt where the blame lies.

Sometimes all the doom and gloom and predictions of disaster from afar turn out to be just scaremongering.

Let us at least hope that this potential date from hell has a happy ending. People forget how easy it is to bond across cultures via a shared love of the Beautiful Game.

So here's to Anglo-Russian friendship via football.

Na zdorovie (Cheers)!

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Champions & Europa League QF draws


The English torrent of five clubs in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League has become a trickle with only one making it through to the last four.

Liverpool and Manchester City have been drawn against each other in the quarter finals, leaving the possibility of three Spanish teams in the semi finals.

Sevilla put a lame dog to the sword at Old Trafford but are less likely to overcome Bayern Munich, who routed Besiktas 8-1 on aggregate in the Round of 16. Bayern are often ignored compared to the Spanish giants for not being sexy enough but they are always a good bet for the last four at least. As with Barcelona and Manchester City, Bayern are running away with their domestic league.

As of now it looks like Pep Guardiola's side will be joining the usual suspects of Barcelona, Bayern  and Real Madrid in the next round, but only a fool would write off Jurgen Klopp's men before their two-legged clash with the Premier League leaders.

The Reds are the only side to have inflicted a league defeat on City this season and if they can register a home win in the first leg without conceding an away goal, then do not bet against them nicking one at the City of Manchester stadium.

With the knowledge of how to undermine the Blues banked at Anfield, the electrifying Mohamed Salah in imperious form and Liverpool's Champions Cup pedigree as a fillip, City's passage to the final four is no foregone conclusion.

The Reds may be far behind the Blues in the league in 2018 but equally they were not the best team in England when they won the Champions League in 2005 or reached the final in 2007.

Juventus will be keen to exact revenge on Real for last season's Champions League final hammering and against Tottenham they showed their will to fight back and inflict telling blows on an arguably superior foe. 

However, reports of Real's death have been greatly exaggerated after their confident despatch of young pretenders Paris Saint Germain woke everyone up. Like Liverpool they are struggling domestically but are finding a new lease of life and brimming with confidence in Europe. They could even repeat last year's win.

Like Real, Barcelona are another ageing outfit who refuse to lie down and whose simple game plan is still frighteningly effective. Their efficient use of space and clinical finishing made light work of a talented Chelsea side and with Lionel Messi as effervescent as ever, it seems hard to see who can beat them.

Roma should succumb in the intimidating cavern of the Camp Nou as Chelsea did, leaving the Catalans in touching distance of the final, their first for three seasons. Now what price a clasico in Kiev on the 26th of May?

The Europa League meanwhile lost a few big names in Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Milan in the last round and unless they are drawn against each other, the two big names left, Arsenal and Atletico Madrid, appear to be closing in on a final showdown on the 16th of May in Lyon.

While pleased to avoid Atletico, who thrashed Lokomotiv Moscow 8-1 on aggregate, Arsenal would have wished to avoid a Russian club at a time when the two countries are at loggerheads over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.

The two favourites could draw each other in the semi finals of course and Marseille, 5-2 aggregate conquerors of Athletic Bilbao, might have something to say about that too.


Barcelona v Roma
Sevilla v Bayern Munich
Juventus v Real Madrid
Liverpool v Manchester City

Ties to be played on the 3rd/4th and 10th/11th of April

Recent Winners:
2013 Bayern Munich
2014 Real Madrid
2015 Barcelona
2016 Real Madrid
2017 Real Madrid


Leipzig v Marseille
Arsenal v CSKA Moscow
Atletico Madrid v Sporting Lisbon
Lazio v Salzburg

Ties to be played on the 5th and 12th of April.

Recent Winners:
2013 Chelsea
2014 Sevilla
2015 Sevilla
2016 Sevilla
2017 Manchester United

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

City's millions sweep Arsenal aside


League Cup Final: Manchester City 3:0 Arsenal

Pep Guardiola has finally won a trophy in England, albeit the least prestigious, the League Cup. Yet no-one could begrudge the stunning improvement he has made to Manchester City this season.

The Blues are playing dynamic and flowing football week-in, week-out, garnished by a panoply of attacking talent, which rightly makes them the runaway leaders of the Premier League.

A bias for attacking has been rewarded, while Jose Mourinho's defence-first, deny-second, attack-third mentality resides in a distant second in the table.

The acid test is of course Europe and the prospect of a Champions League final between City and Guardiola's former kingdom of FC Barcelona is an exceptionally attractive one.

For every winner there is a loser of course and Arsenal did not just lose but took a brow-beating at Wembley. So comprehensive and numbing was their defeat that the fans probably wished they had been knocked out earlier.

The manner in which £35 million signing Shkodran Mustafi allowed Sergio Aguero to break free and open the scoring was truly the stuff of schoolboy football.

Domestic cups have been a tonic in recent seasons for Gunners fans coming to sorry terms with their gradual decline as a big club, last season's surprise F.A. Cup final win over Chelsea being a case in point.

But now Arsenal are out of both the League and F.A. Cup, having surrendered ignominiously away to Nottingham Forest in the latter. And with the North Londoners adrift again in the league, that leaves the gargantuan slog of this season's Europa League as their only hope.

That competition however has a stronger than usual lineup with Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Atheltic Bilbao, Lazio, Lyon and Marseille in the last 16. Oh and Milan, whom Arsenal face next.

Nevertheless, for all the gloom in Highbury, for all the angst that Arsenal cannot put together a run of good results and all the frustration that the club's faceless owners cannot think beyond a manager clearly in decline, Arsene Wenger still has the ability to pull the odd rabbit out of a hat as the recent win over Chelsea showed.

Guardiola is in a sense the new Wenger, the cultured multilingual foreigner bringing novel and exciting ideas to a staid football culture. The irony of Sunday's defeat was that Guardiola was said to have been interested in taking over at Arsenal after coaching Bayern Munich, but Wenger was going nowhere.

Yet make no mistake that the majority of the Blues' meteoric rise from perennial unachievers to potential European champions is still down to its owners' deep wallets.

While the coach is an outstanding one, probably the world's best in fact, the glittering arsenal (no pun) of talent that has jetted in to the Etihad is the main reason for his team's success.

City's squad for the final was collectively worth £777 million in transfer fees, constituting the most valuable in the history of the game.

Yet the most startling pre-match statistic from Wembley is worth repeating and ruminating upon: In 21  months, Guardiola had spent more money than Wenger had spent in 21 years.

If there were ever a reason for enforcing some financial fair-play in football, it is that jaw-dropping, inconvenient truth.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Champions League resumes

The Champions League resumes.

It feels a little churlish to have grown up in the 'terrace generation' of the 1970s and then look forward to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, given that I grew up understanding it as a cup for champions alone, as it still says on the tin.

However, in 2018 I was delighted to see the planet's premier club competition spurt into action again after the winter hiatus. January is a dead month in Europe in more ways than one, a turgid, virus-plagued icy slog after the lights of the Christmas period are packed away, the festivity forgotten and the summer is still hidden over the horizon.

Without the joyful injection of meaningful football, life is always a little grey and pallid so anything soccer-related is a welcome fillip right now.

There is no international football to get your teeth stuck into yet and even in a World Cup year, the 'Coupe du monde/Mondiale/Mundial/WM' is a long way off.

Some players changed clubs in the transfer window to get noticed in the run-up to the final squad announcement, but for most international-class players the World Cup is still at the back of their minds right now.

While the domestic leagues are wearily getting back into gear after the Christmas recess (outside of England that is), the domestic cups afford only slim pickings.

In England the biggest story seemed to be that megabucks Manchester City might get some of their stars crocked when playing in such lesser tournaments, more proof that the Champions League and Premier League have sucked the lifeblood out of domestic football.

Across the continent, Champions League money has created several domestic hegemonies but those same dynasties from the minor leagues have been caught in a no-man's-land of dominating at home but failing abysmally in Europe.

Porto's 0-5 and Basel's 0-4 home reverses to English clubs were proof enough of that. Those sort of scorelines should not be happening in the knockout stages but there are big inequalities even among the elite.

While Liverpool's erratic league form and lack of recent Champions League pedigree suggest they are unlikely to lift the trophy, they could equally make the last four and should not be underestimated.

Man City however look ominously good on all fronts. Pep Guardiola's magic powers are not confined to the playing fields of England and his side must be a candidate for the final now.

City have never won the competition before of course which makes talk of them being an unstoppable force a little unfair. In five years' time we might think differently of course. With the relentless buying power of their Emirate owners showing no signs of slowing down, a blue conquest of Europe seems inevitable.

Tottenham's rise is just as exciting and supporters nervously expect a famous night at Wembley in three weeks when they host Juventus, with whom they drew 2-2 in Turin.

Last season's finalists were humbled on their own patch having been so impregnable for so long, although Spurs' double concession in the first ten minutes was a reminder they still have things to learn at this level.

Rather like Monaco last season, Tottenham's exciting crashing of the party could lead to a feeding frenzy of its stars in the summer unless the club pull out all the stops. Dele Ali, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane will soon be weighing up staying part of an exciting project or earning more at one of the two Spanish giants or PSG.

Reports of Real Madrid's death have been exaggerated as they breathed late fire to defeat PSG 3-1 at home, although the second leg will still be a stiff test as the French have an away goal. Neymar, supposedly wishing to move to the Bernabeu, performed a surprisingly boorish audition and was lucky not to have received a second yellow card for an obvious act of simulation.

Chelsea v Barcelona is the pick of next week's ties and it would be a surprise if the Blues and their beleaguered coach can pull off a famous victory over the Spanish league leaders.

A blaugrana win could still mean half the quarter-finalists English, but talk of an all-Premier League final are premature as they could draw each other in the next round.

The two Spanish giants are still in the field and we should never write off Bayern Munich, who have the relatively modest obstacle of Besiktas to overcome.

The bookies currently rate Man City as favourites, closely followed by Bayern, Barcelona and Real.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fifa World Rankings February 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for February 2018 were published on February 15 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. There is little change in the top 20 ranked teams in the world from January.

Confederations Cup winners Germany remain first with Brazil second and Portugal third. Argentina, who struggled to qualify for World Cup 2018 are in fourth. There is no change in the top 17 teams.

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, France and Chile.

England are 16th, Wales are 20th. Tunisia are the top African team in 23rd place followed by Senegal in 27th.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 36th place; Japan are in 55th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 58th place and have also qualified for the 2018 World Cup. The South Koreans are in Group F.

The USA are in 24th but failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Scotland are in 31st position equal with The Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland are in 26th position.

1 Germany
2 Brazil
3 Portugal
4 Argentina
5 Belgium
6 Spain
7 Poland
8 Switzerland
9 France
10 Chile
11 Peru
12 Denmark
13 Colombia
14 Italy
15 Croatia
16 England
17 Mexico
18 Iceland
19 Sweden
20 Wales

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fifa World Rankings January 2018

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for January 2018 were published on January 18 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. They are the first rankings of the new year and a pointer to the favorites for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Confederations Cup winners Germany remain first with Brazil second and Portugal third. Argentina, who struggled to qualify for World Cup 2018 are in fourth. There is no change in the top 14 teams.

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Switzerland, France and Chile.

England are 16th, Wales are 19th. Tunisia are the top African team in 23rd place followed by Senegal in 24th.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 36th place; Japan are in 56th spot and have qualified for the 2018 World Cup and are in Group H with Poland, Senegal and Colombia. Near neighbors South Korea are in 59th place and have also qualified for the 2018 World Cup. The South Koreans are in Group F - a tough call with holders Germany, Sweden and Mexico.

The USA are in 25th but failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Scotland are in 32nd position equal with The Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland are in 25th position along with the USA.

1 Germany
2 Brazil
3 Portugal
4 Argentina
5 Belgium
6 Spain
7 Poland
8 Switzerland
9 France
10 Chile
11 Peru
12 Denmark
13 Colombia
14 Italy
15 Croatia
16 England
17 Mexico
18 Sweden
19 Wales
20 Iceland

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Slaying the Giant-Killers


Slaying the Giant-Killers.
Another Third Round Saturday and another unappetising serving of false shocks and watered-down lineups.

Where are the soccer gods when you need them to save the game's oldest competition and revive its famous magic?

Arsene Wenger dominated the headlines again with another hapless setback but within a day the fuss over Arsenal's humiliating 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest had died down, such is the diminution of the Cup and the Gunners' chronic failure syndrome under the Frenchman.

In a fan's perfect world, F.A. Cup holders should fight tooth and nail to hold on to their precious crown, not relinquish it by fielding a second eleven against a mediocre team with a caretaker manager in the lower half of the old second division.

Wenger's excuse of needing to save his stars for this Wednesday's League Cup semi-final with Chelsea sounded much like Mark Hughes' famous last words for Stoke last week: Resting his best players away to Chelsea in the hope of beating Newcastle at home resulted in him losing both matches and getting his P45 to boot.

To be fair, the punishing Christmas/New Year schedule is an annual insanity which no sane professional sport should entertain, especially in a World Cup year.

For Arsenal, a task-list of five games over two weeks in icy weather demands an extensive squad of the quality required to make an assault on the Champions League places.

On this evidence Arsenal just do not have that, which makes their end of season goal of reaching the top four already look like a lost cause in January.

Sure, they might win the League Cup and make the Europa League again, but London's biggest club must have higher ambitions than secondary tournaments.

The only alternative route to the Champions League is by winning the Europa League but Arsenal are still nine games away from that conquest, with clubs like Serie A leaders Napoli, Atletico Madrid (second in La Liga) and Borussia Dortmund (third in the Bundesliga) to overcome first.

If the economist Wenger had calculated he had more chance of winning the League Cup or Europa League than the F.A. Cup then his educated guess backfired badly, yet rest assured had he beaten Forest he would have fielded another lacklustre lineup in the next round  - a case of gambler's conceit.

Tonight's clash with Chelsea now takes on more of a must-win nature for Arsenal, or else the pressure on their coach from the press, which was intense in the second half of last season, will surely return. Later this month before the transfer window shuts they could lose talisman Alexis Sanchez and fail to land a replacement like Monaco's Thomas Lemar in time.

Arsenal fans are increasingly weary of the lack of boardroom action to halt the ongoing regression from the heady days of Thierry Henry, the Invincibles and the 2006 Champions League final, especially as derby rivals Tottenham are so effervescent under Mauricio Pochettino. 

If Wenger guides the Gunners to yet another flaccid season of no major signings and nothing better than Europa League qualification, it is hard to see how he can remain at the helm. Five points adrift of the Champions League places, the gloom over Highbury persists and a last-gasp sweetener like last season's F.A. Cup final cannot be guaranteed.

Yet whisper it - Forest had also made changes to their starting eleven on Sunday, albeit not as many as Arsenal. For the twice champions of Europe the league is also the priority this season, firstly by avoiding relegation to the third tier and secondly by making a run for the playoffs and possible ascension to the Premier League, where many feel they still belong.

Forest dream of a steady ship more than any flash in the pan cup win. They have employed 16 different managers in eight years - an extraordinarily unstable spell in the history of a club who kept just one manager (Brian Clough) between 1975 and 1993, an outstanding one of course.

Caretaker Gary Brazil did not react as expected to the 'Cup shock' the commentators were insisting was ensuing, merely smiling ruefully as his side scored four impressive goals, well aware that more meaningful battles lie ahead.

The media do their best to insist 'The Magic of the Cup' lives on and that it is far from a sideshow, but try as I might I could not bring myself to anything like elation as my side beat higher league opposition.

If the press did not talk up their product they would in effect be betraying their raison d'etre, so journalists inhabit a bizarre middle-earth where they pretend there is something to get excited about, when most can see the emperor has lost his clothes.

A couple of years ago Fleet Street slated the then Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal, a notoriously obstinate character at the best of times, when he failed to acknowledge the special character of the F.A. Cup, a trophy he went on to capture.

When urged at a press conference before the semi-final to supply the quotes the reporters wanted for the articles they had already planned, he replied disinterested, to the chagrin of the frustrated hacks who as ever had arrived with agendas to fullfil.

But as coach of a club as big as United, whose ambitions extend beyond the F.A. Cup, as well as a headstrong man who had grown up in another football culture and managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands, he was only being himself and should have been respected for that.

Absurdly, journalists still ask managers during cup runs if the league remains the priority when it obviously does, given the riches to be won or lost by promotion, relegation or European qualification.

The thing is the F.A. Cup used to be as big a prize as the first division, hence the Charity (now F.A. Community) Shield showdown as the new season's curtain-raiser. It is hard to explain to the younger generation why, but it was. So when hacks ask that silly question about priorities, they are in effect channelling the spirit of the Cup, but that is all it is now, a mere ghost.

So the City Ground, murmuring with the memories of 'Old Big 'Ead' Clough, lit up for a brief and fiery flicker amid an inescapably grey backdrop of two storied clubs who were in painful reality pale shadows of their former selves. And that was the highlight of the third round.

There were other stories of note, not least a pair of minnows from League Two, the old fourth division, eliminating higher-ranked opposition: Newport County, one of those 'survivor clubs' we all want to do well when they appear in the media this time of year, beat Leeds and will now feel excited to host Tottenham, while Yeovil Town's reward for defeating Bradford City is a home tie with Manchester United.

Far be it from me to engage in conspiracy theories but it almost felt like the gods guided Rio Ferdinand's shuffling hand in the bag to bestow riches on half of the remaining lowest-ranked sides.

Plum draws they appear, but rest assured Jose Mourinho and Pochettino will ring the changes to their starting lineups, diminishing the David v Goliath billing and reducing the chances of what can legitimately be called an upset.

Last season's F.A. Cup concluded with an entertaining clash between two Premier League giants fitting of a finale, but the famous magic of the Cup evaporated into the ether some time ago.

European football cannot take all the blame because the world's oldest football competition, so special it is the only one referred to as 'The Cup', retained its prestige throughout the heyday of England's domination of the UEFA Champions Cup.

The malaise began in the early 1990s with the rise of satellite television. Previously the nation had no more than three or four television channels to choose from so congregated around annual marquee events like the F.A. Cup Final.

The creation of the Premier League in 1993, based on Sky TV's high-octane cash injection, was soon mirrored by the birth and inflated marketing of the UEFA Champions League, leaving domestic knock-out competitions without such broadcasting revenue unable to keep up.

Next, the arrival in England of overseas coaches unversed in the unique tradition of the Football Association Challenge Cup saw weakened elevens selected, a pattern now so commonplace that when a big teams's manager fields his strongest eleven for a cup tie he is interrogated over his logic.

And suspect No.1 in the instigation and propagation of this crime against football tradition: A certain Mr. Wenger of Arsenal F.C.

Maybe the soccer gods were smiling over the City Ground.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile