Sunday, January 13, 2013

Credit to Mansfield Town

Stadium FA Cup 2010
Photo by Flawka on Flickr

To get us in the mood for the United - Liverpool derby, Correspondent Scott takes us back to Liverpool's FA Cup game against Mansfield Town:

Fresh from a 3-0 thrashing of Sunderland, Liverpool FC traveled to Mansfield Town of the 5th-tier Conference National league for a game that ultimately almost lived up to its giant-killer potential.  The stadium, designed for 10,000 but currently only able to accommodate a little over 7,000, housed a pitch in about the same shape as the one my 6-year-old daughter played on last weekend – soggy, choppy and barren in spots.  The pitch, combined with the ambiance of the Stags’ home, only served to increase the romantic notion that a humble mining town team from the 5th level of English football could slay the 18-time first division champions visiting from Liverpool.  This was the very essence of what the FA Cup is all about.

But only 7 minutes into the game, Jonjo Shelvey’s excellent through ball allowed new Liverpool signing Daniel Sturridge to calmly slip the ball past the onrushing Mansfield ‘keeper, ensuring all parties were abundantly clear as to their position in the football caste system.  However, in true FA Cup fashion, the underdog Stags continued to fight hard, scrappy and, yes, rough and dirty at times, despite the Reds’ overwhelming dominance of possession and multiple chances on goal.  The Mansfield ‘keeper, who I now know is named Alan Marriott, singlehandedly kept his team in the fight with a  series of brave and spectacular saves.  Such was his effectiveness that, at halftime, Sturridge had only managed to convert that one goal out of 4 clear opportunities, including a 1v1.  But with 70% of the possession and all but one of the shots in the first half, it seemed only a matter of time before Liverpool hunted down the Stags for good.

Mansfield Town, however, was of a different mind.  As if having shot up with adrenaline during halftime, they ran rampant in the second half right from the whistle, with their first real scoring chance coming within the first minute.  Was this the same team that had worn the blue and gold uniforms in the first half?  Looking far more likely to score with relentless pressure, they tested Brad Jones several times within the first 10 minutes.  Shortly after Sturridge put another chance wide, this time from a COUNTER attack after a melee in front of the Liverpool goal, he was replaced by Luis Suarez in the 56th minute (and Suso was replaced by Jordan Henderson).  Clearly Brendan Rodgers was taking no chances.

This change paid immediate, if dubious, dividends.  In the 59th minute, Suarez scored by bundling in the ball with his hand after yet another save by Marriott.  It was clearly a handball and should have been seen, especially since it was almost assuredly intentional or, at a minimum, avoidable.  Even Suarez did not celebrate with his usual vigor, despite the ring and wrist kissing.  With images of Diego Maradona and Thierry Henry assaulting the senses, nearly all life was sucked from the valiant stag, who now seemed to lie gasping on the uneven grass with the red-clad hunter approaching to finish the job.

But then, in the 80th minute, the awesome beast bucked to life by taking advantage of the hunter’s complacence on a set piece and reducing the lead to one which, but for the vision vagaries of the officials, would have been an equalizer.  The game concluded with some of the tensest 10 minutes this Liverpool supporter has ever experienced.  The fight, determination and ultimate defeat of the Stags was almost beautiful in a Shakespearean tragedy sort of way.  Their effort, resilience and inspired play are a credit to themselves, their team and their town.  While Premier League teams can look at the FA Cup as a “lesser” competition, this game…this team…this awesome beast of effort was the very embodiment of what soccer, nay, what sport is all about.

This is farlieonfootie for January 13.

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