Friday, 4 May 2012

Cup Final Trends

My first time was 1967, at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon in May. I’m talking about FA Cup Finals, and Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea was the first one I watched, notable for being the first final to allow substitutes, although I don't recall that registering at the time. Spurs won 2-1. 1967 was a big year for me. I’d attended my first ever League match the previous month, was on the verge of going to ‘big school’ (as my old – and former - headmistress referred to my grammar school), and the age of 10 is a pretty exciting time in life.

The build up to FA Cup Finals is also exciting, although in recent years the hype is less than it used to be, with the Premier League and UEFA Champions' League very much the club trophies that matter, but for most football fans, the FA Cup still holds a special place in our affections. It’s still considered a major trophy, and for fans of clubs outside the elite, along with its less illustrious younger brother, the League Cup, offers the only realistic shot at seeing their team hoist a major trophy.

Although winners from the past 20 competitions have overwhelmingly come from the elite, with the notable exception of Portsmouth in 2008, non-elite teams have at least made the final several times. Wimbledon remain the last David to beat a Goliath in 1988, but since then Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Southampton, Millwall, West Ham United, Cardiff City and Stoke City have all had their chances, and, often literally, their day in the sun. For a team that is traditionally known as a Cup team, Tottenham Hotspur have been noticeably absent from Cup Finals in recent years.

But does the FA Cup Final live up to expectations? Conventional wisdom is that Cup Finals are often rather dour, tense matches, decided by a rare moment of brilliance or a defensive lapse. Certainly most finals are close. Just seven of the last twenty have been decided by more than one goal, one went to a replay (ah, the good old days), three more to extra-time, two of which were decided on penalties. That 16 Finals in this time have been decided in 90 minutes is perhaps surprising, given the closeness of most matches, but only four times have both teams scored.

Excluding the one replay, 15 Finals have finished Under 2.5 goals, with just 5 going Over. Two matches have seen a first minute goal, (both involvingChelsea), and ten have been scoreless at half-time. What recent history shows us is that goals in the first twenty minutes of each half are quite a rarity. Everton scored in the first minute in 2009, but you have to go back to 1999 for the last time a goal was scored in any of these 40 minute periods. It does rather support the theory that, fresh out of the changing room, teams are generally cautious in their approach.

While it is subjective to say which teams are ‘elite’, and Liverpool’s place in that group is certainly debatable, this Saturday’s Final is the first between two such teams since 2007. Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 that year, with an extra-time goal. Two years before that, Arsenal beat Manchester United on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes, and in 2002, Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 with the opening goal coming at 70 minutes.

While history and statistics offer no guarantees, history does have a habit of repeating itself, and anyone expecting a low scoring game, with the first goal coming after 20 minutes has the numbers on their side. Even Stoke and Millwall (v Manchester United), Portsmouth and Aston Villa (v Chelsea), and Southampton and Newcastle (v Arsenal) have survived that long in recent seasons before conceding and going on to lose.

If there is no goal by half-time, look for the opening goal to come after 65 minutes. There does seem to be some evidence to support the theory that the changing room sees managers placing the emphasis on discipline rather than creativity in their team-talks.

The Chelsea v Liverpool fixture has certainly become quite a rivalry over the past few years, arguably dating back to 2002-03 when the two teams met on the last day of the season with fourth place, and a UEFA Champions' League spot, at stake. Chelsea prevailed that day. New owner Roman Abramovich ensured Chelsea’s financial future and Liverpool have been trying to catch up ever since. Five successive seasons (2004-2009) where the two teams met in the Champions' League only added to the rivalry.

In 2005, Chelsea and Liverpool met in the League Cup Final, with yet another first minute goal in a final involving Chelsea. Tied 1-1 after 90 minutes, Chelsea won 3-2 after extra time.

In the league fixture between these two teams back in November, Liverpool won 2-1 at Chelsea with a late (87’) winner despite Chelsea having the balance of play.

As always, I shall enjoy the tradition and spectacle of the FA Cup, and expect a 'blue' team to continue their run of success in a low scoring affair – to nil.

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