It was a Bad Weekend For… Davids and Goliaths

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Simon Carter casts his eye over the leagues and FA Cup to announce: It was a Bad Weekend For...

Anyone But United (of the title-chasers)
His face covered in sweat and frustration, Mario Balotelli slumped back into his chair after being snubbed by manager Roberto Mancini following a second-half substitution in Manchester City’s draw at West Ham this weekend.

While the source of Balotelli’s irritation was undoubtedly his wayward finishing and the (arguably unprofessional) behaviour of his manager, his vexation will have been felt this weekend in many of the players, managers and fans of clubs chasing one of this season’s Champions League places.

City’s draw with West Ham, where Hammers’ captain Kevin Nolan had a goal wrongfully disallowed, saw the champions miss the chance to draw level at the top of the table with rivals Manchester United, who had earlier beaten Arsenal 2-1 at Old Trafford.

Neither City nor United would have had chance to take the top spot had Chelsea managed to hold onto their lead at Swansea, but as the hail thrashed down at the Liberty Stadium, the European champions struggled to keep possession and fell victim to a wonderful late equaliser from Pablo Hernandez.

Boos rang out at White Hart Lane where Tottenham Hotspur were completely outplayed by Wigan Athletic, with only another great performance from Brad Friedel keeping the scoreline to 0-1.

And across London at Craven Cottage, Everton failed to capitalise on their impressive play against Fulham, drawing for a fourth successive league fixture after a topsy-turvy 90 minutes in which the score eventually settled at 2-2.

Though it would be something of a stretch to say that either Liverpool or Newcastle United are aiming for a top-four spot this season, neither were able to take advantage of poor results from those around them. The Reds may have edged the Sunday afternoon clash at Anfield but required a stunning goal from Luis Suarez to salvage a point after Yohan Cabaye’s first half opener.

Of all the teams with realistic designs on a top four position come May, only Manchester United had reason to celebrate this weekend. Faced with an Arsenal side that had scored seven goals midweek (with hat-trick hero Theo Walcott on the bench), United would have expected a tough test from the Gunners.

While not as one-sided as last year’s 8-2 in the same fixture, the 2-1 result bears almost no resemblance to what happened on the pitch. United missed a penalty and had two further goals disallowed (both correctly). Nobody would have complained had the game finished 4-0 or 5-0.

After the match, Wenger bemoaned refereeing decisions for costing his side the game but Arsenal legend Tony Adams worried aloud that his former side lacks belief. After watching the Gunners surrender, it is hard not to choose Adams’ assessment over Wenger’s.

Hi-Ho Wolverhampton
On five occasions already this season, including three in October, Wolverhampton Wanderers have surrendered a lead to either draw or lose a game. Had they managed to hold onto each of those leads, they would be 12 points better off than they currently are, and would have a healthy lead at the top of The Championship.

Whether this quirk speaks of a lack of character or an understandable dearth of confidence following last season’s relegation and the departure of several key players such as Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis, recent results have shown signs of a worrying trend.

Wolves’ 2-0 defeat at Burnley (who were guided by new manager Sean Dyche) on Saturday marks the low point of the season so far – the 6-0 defeat at Chelsea in the Capital One Cup was somewhat expected. The fact that the Molineux side didn’t even have a lead to throw away speaks volumes about an abject display where they didn’t even look like scoring until well after the prolific Charlie Austin had put the home side two ahead with his 19th strike of the season.

Post-game, Wolves manager Stale Solbakken said that he “probably picked the wrong team” on Saturday. Many more performances like this one and he, and the fans, would be forgiven for applying the exact same thoughts to his decision to take over the club in the first place.

Ah, the FA Cup First Round (or to give it its full name ‘The FA Cup First Round Proper’). Always one of the most anticipated days on the football calendar, it’s a day when amateurs, semi-pros and professional footballers duke it out with only one thought in mind – getting through to the next round.

While fans of teams involved focus their minds on dreams of the third round, and a possible glamour tie with the ‘big boys’, FA Cup days for neutrals are all about one thing and one thing only, giant killings.

And we didn’t have to wait long for the first shock of the day as Conference Premier side Hereford United comfortably dealt with the threat posed by their hated League One neighbours Shrewsbury Town, dispatching them 3-1 in a Saturday lunchtime kick-off without ever breaking sweat.

Impressive as that was, Hereford were eclipsed later in the afternoon by Conference rivals Macclesfield Town, travelling to face a Swindon Town side who just days before had come close to knocking Aston Villa out of the League Cup. Swindon manager Paolo Di Canio reacted to his side’s 2-0 home defeat by threatening to fine his players.

Torquay United’s home tie against Blue Square Bet North minnows Harrogate Town seemed like a plum draw but despite raining in 17 shots at goal, the Gulls couldn’t breach the visitors' defence and went down 1-0.

Elsewhere shocks were relatively thin on the ground but the performance of the day award goes to Chelmsford City of the Blue Square Bet South, who beat Essex neighbours Colchester United (currently just outside the League One play-offs) 3-1 in front of 3,000 rapturous fans.

Possible Sunday shocks at Braintree and Gloucester (where the sides were to take on Tranmere Rovers and Leyton Orient respectively) fell foul of the wet weekend weather so it was left to Blue Square Bet South team Dorchester Town to provide the giant-killing.

All the talk in the build-up to this, the last of the weekend’s FA Cup ties, had been about part time David Beckham impersonator Jamie Gleeson who lined up for Dorchester against Plymouth Argyle yesterday. Though Gleeson managed to avoid the headlines, and was substituted in the second half, former Plymouth trainee Jake Gosling wrote his own with a neat finish to seal a 1-0 win.

So what next for the topplers of big names? Hereford make the trip to Cheltenham in the Second Round while Macclesfield will face Guiseley or Barrow. Harrogate will line up against Hastings, Chelmsford travel to Crawley and David Beckham’s Dorchester can look forward to a visit to either Luton or Nuneaton.

So with only a handful of the bigger clubs succumbing to the Magic of the Cup, First Round day was a bad one for several sides who saw their dreams dashed.

AFC Fylde, who had never played in the FA Cup First Round before, were well beaten 4-1 at home to League Two’s Accrington Stanley (who were managed for the first time by Leam Richardson). Carlisle United were made to work for their passage to the next round, eventually shaking off a tenacious Ebbsfleet United with the help of a couple of late goals to win 4-2.

Arlesey Town hoped for an Olympian performance at Coventry City’s London 2012 venue the Ricoh Arena, but the home side were too good, winning 3-0 and hitting the target 14 times. Bristol Rovers, Forest Green and the Met Police all managed goals against bigger opposition but none were able to even force a replay.

Fans at Field Mill
A strange statistical quirk meant that the 1,686 poor souls who made the trip to Field Mill to watch the FA Cup tie between Mansfield and Slough were the only fans in either England or Scotland not to see a goal on a day of some great football and memorable matches. Oh well, they get to do it all again a week on Tuesday in the replay...