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Saturday, May 17, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Portsmouth-Cardiff City F.A. Cup final fails to inspire


LONDON — No matter how much purists try to argue that it sums up the magic of the F.A. Cup, regardless of the "ideal" David vs. Goliath matchup and, to the relief of some, the fact that none of the Big Four clubs is involved, the final between Portsmouth and Cardiff City is the least interesting most neutrals can remember.

Christopher Davies

This is no fault of the teams involved at Wembley. It is simply that the only magic about this final is that it will make television viewers disappear.

Even that it is England vs. Wales adds no extra edge and how Portsmouth vs. Cardiff needs it. If pushed, most supporters would say that, yes, it would be good if Harry Redknapp led Portsmouth to victory.

"Arry," as he is known (the English having an aversion to the letter H at the start of a word), is a salt of the earth, a belt-and-braces diamond geezer (translated from Cockney, that means a genuine character) and deserves to win a major trophy.

If on the other hand Dave Jones' Cardiff defies the odds, the general view will be that the F.A. Cup was something of an unfunny joke this season.

Normal service will be resumed next year.

You could employ the finest spin doctors in the country, but selling the 2008 F.A. Cup final would be only marginally less demanding than a bid to host the World Cup by Hong Kong.

The rise and rise of Portsmouth under Redknapp has been spectacular and probably not fully appreciated. Before Redknapp took over as manager in March 2002, the club was close to relegation to the third level of English football.

In his first full season, Redknapp led Portsmouth to the Premier League before a spat with chairman Milan Mandaric saw him pack his bags and join South coast rival Southampton.

This would normally be the ultimate act of Portsmouth treachery, but as Southampton was relegated under Redknapp in his short spell in charge, he was forgiven when he returned to Fratton Park in December 2005.

Indeed, many Pompey supporters felt it made Redknapp a hero, taking "the scum" down.

Second time around Redknapp has brought new life and enthusiasm to veterans such as Kanu, David James and Sol Campbell, plus finding some African gems, while keeping the media happy with his cheery personality and one-liners.

Jones has done a solid job with Stockport, Southampton and Wolves but could never have believed when, earlier this season, some Cardiff fans were calling for his head, that he would lead them out at Wembley in the F.A. Cup final.

It would be wrong to call Jones anonymous but most of his players are. Go in any bar in England and ask football fans to name six Cardiff players and they would struggle.

I hope the final proves to be a memorable match, but it seems more likely to be one-sided with "Arry's" Pompey comfortable winners.

* * * * *

THE FINAL everyone is looking forward to will be played four days later in Moscow when, having beaten Chelsea to the domestic title, Manchester United hopes to become kings of Europe.

The mind games started on Wednesday, when Avram Grant, whose future as Chelsea manager is still uncertain, claimed referees handed United the Premier League title.

Poppycock.

It is further proof, if any were needed, how one-eyed managers are. They only see decisions that they believe go against them, conveniently forgetting those that have worked in their favor.

A teams wins the title because it has proved to be the best over 38 games not because of a couple of generous refereeing decisions in the final game as Grant intimated.

He claimed Steve Bennett was "influenced" at Wigan last Sunday. True, Bennett should have awarded a penalty against United when Rio Ferdinand handled, and sent off Paul Scholes for a second cautionable offense.

He should also have awarded United a penalty when Titus Bramble fouled Scholes which, surprise surprise, Grant failed to mention.

Can Grant (or any manager) put his hand on his heart and say his club has never benefited from the decision of a referee or linesman?

Has no Chelsea player stayed on the pitch when he should have been sent off?

Grant hates comparisons with Jose Mourinho, but his predecessor would have been proud of such a rant. That it had little credibility is irrelevant.

The buildup to Moscow will intensify in the coming days, and Sir Alex Ferguson is no shrinking violet when it comes to retaliation in such matters. There is little love lost between the clubs, which adds to the overall attraction of the English derby in the Russian capital.

Who will win?

If John Terry and Didier Drogba do not recover from injury, then it is easier to say United.

With both sides at full-strength it becomes the closest of calls.

Perhaps, ironically, a refereeing decision or an individual mistake will prove decisive.

* * * * *

FOOTBALL leaves you shaking your head in disbelief at times.

Many believe Avram Grant was not experienced or qualified enough to manage a top club like Chelsea when he succeeded Jose Mourinho.

Grant had at least coached Israeli clubs, plus the national team in an unbeaten 2002 World Cup-qualifying campaign.

Imagine the Catalan eyebrows raised at the choice of Pep Guardiola as Frank Rijkaard's successor at Barcelona.

Guardiola became a Barca legend as a player, but it is difficult to think of another major club which would appoint a rookie coach with no experience in La Liga, Division 2A or Division 2B.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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