FA Cup semis feature two derbies
It's all going wrong for Tottenham Hotspur. If the wheels aren't falling off, they're in need of repair after confronting a massive North London pothole.
One Premier League win since early February has left the great entertainers in a dogfight to qualify for the Champions League next season, when it had appeared for most of the campaign that a top-three finish was all but guaranteed. Two months ago Tottenham had loftier ambitions, challenging for the title. The slide began when manager Harry Redknapp became linked with the England job. Coincidence? Excuse? You decide.
Tottenham's latest setback came Monday, when slumping Norwich -- the Canaries always seemingly put on a show, too -- engineered a 2-1 victory, becoming just the third side, after the two Manchester clubs, to walk away from White Hart Lane victorious in the league.
A strange thing happened afterward. Redknapp acknowledged that he got things wrong by starting two strikers up front, Jermain Defoe and Louis Saha, in a 4-4-2 formation instead of remaining with his preferred 4-2-3-1. "People say to me, 'We're better off when we play 4-4-2,' but I played that way this time and I didn't like the look of us," Redknapp told reporters. "I thought we were miles too open."
For once, even some Tottenham supporters rounded on the popular Redknapp, wondering why the man who calls the shots bowed down to those "people" or outside pressure if he knows what suits his team best. It was commendable, mind you, for him to admit his error in such a public fashion.
Tottenham, then, will most certainly return to the lone-striker setup against Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday evening in the FA Cup semifinals, and expect Emmanuel Adebayor, not Defoe or Saha, to get the nod. When Tottenham held Chelsea to a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge in late March, a result that was supposed to reignite Spurs, Adebayor worked tirelessly and was always a threat. That Tottenham failed to score was a surprise; Chelsea keeper Petr Cech could have been breached at least three or four times, as the visitors were much the better side.
Reaching a first FA Cup final since winning the prized trophy 21 years ago, banishing memories of a surprise semifinal defeat to Portsmouth at Wembley in 2010 and battling fellow Londoners all serve as motivation for Tottenham.
"Monday was disappointing, but we're all looking forward to Wembley now," Tottenham's flying winger Gareth Bale told the club website. "We just need to get on with it, forget about Monday and move on. It's not every day that you play at Wembley in the semifinal of the FA Cup, especially in a London derby, so that will be great for the atmosphere. It's a fantastic occasion to look forward to, and hopefully we've some history to make."
Chelsea is also seeking history. Not since Manchester United's treble in 1999 has an English team bagged the Champions League and FA Cup in the same season. In truth, Chelsea would likely forgo a trophy and settle for fourth in the Premier League to qualify for Champions League football next season.
But the obstacles facing Chelsea's interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo, are numerous. He and his troops could be forgiven for being slightly distracted Sunday, given that Barcelona waltzes into west London for the Champions League semis a mere three days later. Switching Liverpool's match with Everton to Sunday wasn't a serious option since that day marks the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
As pundit Gary Neville put it, the heavy pitch at Wembley takes a larger-than-usual toll on players' legs, so will those who play Sunday be in good shape for Barcelona? Di Matteo will probably shuffle his starting XI, although he won't have to factor Branislav Ivanovic into the equation. He was handed a three-game domestic ban for appearing to punch Wigan's Shaun Maloney in Chelsea's hardly deserved 2-1 win in the Premier League this past Saturday. The incident was missed by officials but caught on video, allowing the Football Association -- under fire due to its handling of incidents involving Mario Balotelli and Shaun Derry this week -- to take retrospective action. You would imagine that Chelsea captain John Terry, nursing cracked ribs, won't start both Sunday and Wednesday.
Tottenham has its own injury concerns in central defense -- nothing new there this season -- and influential midfielder Scott Parker is dealing with a sore hamstring. Chelsea's next two weeks will determine its fate. After Tottenham and the first leg versus Barcelona, the Blues travel to Arsenal on April 21, head to Barcelona on April 24 for the return leg and tangle with QPR in a West London derby April 29.
"It's a defining moment in the season," Chelsea defender Gary Cahill told Sky Sports. "The lads are confident, but obviously we realize how big the games on Sunday and Wednesday are."
Dalglish staying put
Those Liverpool fans who wanted Kenny Dalglish gone at the end of season will be sorely disappointed.
Thursday's dismissal -- Liverpool officially used that wonderful term "mutual consent" -- of director of football Damien Comolli left the Frenchman as the scapegoat for the club's flop signings in the transfer windows, even though Dalglish admitted later Thursday he was responsible for bringing in the likes of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson.
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While revealing his disappointment at Liverpool's results, club chairman Tom Werner gave Dalglish his full backing, to which Dalglish replied, with his customary charm, "I don't need any reassurance from the owners. I have got a big game on Saturday against Everton, which is the focal point for us."
Dalglish seems to think it's his right to manage Liverpool instead of a privilege.
Liverpool enters Saturday's midday kickoff against Everton finally in good spirits, ending a four-game winless streak with a 3-2 victory at Blackburn. Carroll had arguably his most productive game of the season, scoring the winner late and chipping in at both ends of the pitch. Maxi Rodriguez, regularly treated with disdain by Dalglish for no apparent good reason, netted the other two goals.
But with Liverpool already without Pepe Reina, Alexander Doni's red card in Tuesday's match means third-choice keeper Brad Jones will start against the Toffees. Jones is a sentimental favorite. His 5-year-old son lost his battle with leukemia last year, and the Aussie pointed to the heavens when he stopped former teammate Yakubu's weak penalty Tuesday. This month, his partner gave birth to another boy.
Jones, however, conceded another penalty when he spilled a routine catch, and hasn't started a game since last April when on loan with Derby. He'll be tested on crosses and corners, with countryman Tim Cahill and impressive new signing Nikica Jelavic -- both strong in the air -- sure to make life difficult for the 30-year-old.
Though Everton has won four and drawn one in its past five to move past Liverpool in the table, the Reds are still the favorites with the bookies.
"The bookies are very rarely wrong, aren't they?" Everton manager David Moyes, criticized for his team selection in a 3-0 loss at Anfield in March, told reporters sarcastically.
How the Scot would love to move a step closer to capturing his first trophy with Everton since his commendable, and cash-strapped, reign began in 2002.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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