After a leisurely healthy breakfast at Streatham's finest gourmet dining establishment, the Winning Post Café, I got into the swing of things by detouring from my normal matchday route to Finsbury Park to see the new "Highbury Final Salute" mural at Arsenal tube station instead (with which I was quite impressed, for the record). My mood still buoyed by the morning papers' reports of Thierry Henry's impending new contract, this took me through a change of trains at Kings Cross, whereupon one of the forty of so policemen creating what I understand is known as a "bubble" around the visiting blue-clad Cardiff City fans directed me to go to the front of the train. Along with the rest of the bemused (and non-Welsh) early morning commuters, I followed instructions and went to the first two carriages, where I found that the transport cops had obviously slipped up in not having spotted the "incognito" travelling Bluebirds, quite a failing considering how few large celtic-featured gentlemen with identical Burberry baseball caps you normally find on the Piccadilly line early on a Saturday morning, and the fact that here were twenty of them sat on either side of the carriage!
The match itself was fairly nondescript – two fine first-half finishes from a contract-chasing Pires were more than sufficient to seal a win on top of Arsenal's dominant passing game, notwithstanding a scrambled late Cardiff consolation goal that I still have no way of knowing really crossed the line – and Wenger once again got away with fielding a relatively weak side, Jens Lehmann, Thierry Henry and Pascal Cygan (fresh from keeping Ronaldo and Giggs in his pocket) all rested, presumably for the trip to Wigan on Tuesday. Cardiff chairman Sam Hamman once again proved himself a total plonker for refusing to condemn the lone Cardiff pitch invader who briefly menaced stand-in keeper Almunia, possibly with a bottle, but all in all it was a good, if earlier than usual, pretext for a return to the local hostelry, just as the matches round the rest of the country were getting underway.
There were a few surprises in the 3 o'clock kickoffs, non-league Nuneaton's draw with Boro being the largest for me, and beating Torquay's goalless draw with Birmingham on the basis that the St Andrews team were just awful, whereas Nuneaton would actually have won their game if they'd been awarded the other penalty they'd earned just before the one they converted to earn a replay. I also loved the post-match comment from Nuneaton player Terry Angus that Teesside was a "great place to visit ... in the summer".
Scunthorpe's half-time lead had worried Man City at Eastlands before a Robbie Fowler hattrick (a phrase I've not typed in a fair old while) settled things in favour of the home side, and Chelsea just about managed to rouse themselves from slumber to beat Huddersfield 2-1, so Southampton's swinging 4-3 win over MK Dons looked like being the best match of the day. Before, that is, Liverpool kicked off at Kenilworth Road, to firmly set the seal on the unique giant-killing thrill potential of the FA Cup.
The reigning European champions, having shipped only 11 goals in 19 games against Premiership opposition so far this term, initially looked safe and sound after captain Gerrard had stroked home an exquisite curving volley to open the scoring. Unfortunately for them, no-one had told Luton Town that they were doomed, and they turned it around to 3-1 up courtesy of two great strikes (one turning Jamie Carragher inside out on the way) and a converted penalty just after Cisse's own spot-kick and potential equaliser was saved. Neither spot-kick was in fact deserved, but Liverpool looked dead and buried until Rafa the Gaffer proved his worth once again with what seemed to me the unlikeliest of winning substitutions – Florent Sinama-Pongolle for Sissoko – and the Frenchman's pace proved the key that undid the Championside side. First a low drive to narrow the deficit after a great Gerrard through-ball, then a run that drew off the midfield and meant Alonso had a crucial extra half-second on the ball to chip the equaliser from forty yards. Not bad from the Spaniard, considering the Luton keeper was beaten while still on his line, but topped by Pongolle's header to put Liverpool back in front. By the time Beresford had come up for an injury time Luton corner, only to find himself stranded in midfield such that Alonso scored into an open goal from 70 yards out (and the wrong side of the centre circle!), it was in truth already over. But I think the double-take done by Gerrard at the death, as he initially berates Alonso for failing to pass to him, only to then realise that his team-mate's lob is going in, and to start applauding it, sums up this game. Considering the shirt sponsorship involved, it's appropriate to comment that "if Carlsberg did comebacks..." this would be how they went.
Saturday, then, was rounded off by a game that would have had Sky kicking themselves with their match selection, and those who watched it live incredulous at the tension of the game, but Benitez was of course furious. Having to come from behind when the opposition is AC Milan is one thing, but I think Benitez was remembering – and hating – the defensive chaos of a slightly older vintage Liverpool European final; that against Alaves in 2001 which rounded off the Houllier cup treble. This is not, according to the new Anfield rule book, the way to do it, even if it gives the scouser away support the opportunity to sing "3-1 and you f***ed it up" loudly enough to be heard clearly over the BBC commentators.
I wasn't sure that Sunday's action could match Saturday's, so I headed off to the shops for a bit, but got home at half-time of the Burton Albion draw with Manchester United. The early kick-off had seen Leyton Orient of League Two beat Premiership Fulham, and although Sunderland were no less than four divisions higher than their conference opposition Northwich Victoria, the confirmation I received at that time that the Black Cats had finally won a match nonetheless seemed like something of an upset, so dismal has their recent form been. So I thought there could be something in the air, and so it transpired once I got the old plasma screen fired up.
First, Man U failed to score from a dozen decent chances, for the last half hour running at Burton with Rooney and Ronaldo, but to no better end effect than with Rossi and Saha, and indeed Burton were for some reason denied a nailed-on late penalty for a fit of Pique, or at least for his pretty obvious handball (ok, so that pun would have worked better if you had ever heard of Gerard Pique). So Clough Jr gets to take a team to Old Trafford for a cup tie. With Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool (just) having all won, Man U was the final leg of my play-it-safe FA Cup accumulator bet for the weekend, so believe it or not, I was actually slightly miffed at the result, but I suppose I deserve Spartan returns for having momentarily forgotten Sir Alex's similar misjudgement against Exeter City a year ago.
Nevertheless, with two-and-a-half-ish upsets out of three matches already on Sunday, there was no way I was going to miss unfancied Leicester taking on the literally cocky Tottenham team whose current transient league placing has got them all excited and portraying themselves as the new dominant force in London football. Given what had ensued earlier in the day, I just knew that the jubilant away support singing "Spurs are on their way to Wembley" all the louder once Staltieri's admittedly highly deserving strike had put them two-up in sight of half-time was premature. Once Leicester had managed to peg one back before the interval, I knew I was correct, and I had two uncanny flashbacks... firstly, to the true words of that song, which are of course "Spurs are on their way to Endsleigh" (though you would admittedly have to be of similar or longer vintage to me to remember it that way) and secondly, to a long abiding image of the then Spurs captain Teddy Sheringham carrying an oversized "League Cup: Passport to Europe" mocked up passport onto the pitch before the final, where they went on to lose to Blackburn.
Sure enough, the second half saw a revitalised Leicester come out of the traps, drawing level after a quarter of an hour, and thereby for half an hour teasing the Lilywhites with the thought of a White Hart Lane replay before thrusting home the épée with a 90th minute, coolly-slotted and entirely on-side winner. Touché, and once again the commentators had trouble making themselves heard over the crowd's reminder of the one-time 2-0 scoreline.
Immediately the final whistle sent, I personally had to battle for self-control and restrain myself from sending off any number of text messages which, while initially amusing, may have invited retaliation considering that the Arsenal's next game is a tricky away tie to Wigan in the Carling Cup, where the usual reserve side may struggle if the late November league performance by the first eleven was anything to go by. I consoled myself instead with the consequent memory of how one Spurs-supporting acquaintance had reacted to elimination from that competition by mighty Grimsby Town by saying that they'd now win the FA Cup for sure. Part of me really wants to see Spurs qualify for the Champions League, because it seems to me that their recent cup form is so amusing it needs a greater stage to be fully appreciated.
But for now, I will merely chuckle at the thought of the TV scheduling for tomorrow, and the thought of any hypothetical darts-playing Spurs fans, who might accidentally tune in early to the World Championships on BBC2 and find themselves inadvertently watching the fourth round draw. Anyway, don't bother phoning me at around half one – just like these hapless types, I'll be busy then!