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F.A. Cup Final Preview
by Shane LeRoy (Soccer)
Posted on May 10, 2006, 1:19 AM

With the F.A. Cup final taking place this Saturday, West Ham fan Paul Stone joins Liverpool fan Shane LeRoy to preview the showpiece attraction that sees two of English footballís most storied clubs lock horns in Cardiff. Each will answer a series of questions from their respective teamís point of view, culminating in a final prediction for the game.

Paul Stone:

West Hamís road to Cardiff:
West Hamís road to Cardiff was a difficult route to say the least, playing Premiership teams such as Bolton, Blackburn, Manchester City and Middlesbrough on their passage to the final. Below is the route the Hammers took to the cup final, accompanied by the scorers of the Hammers goals.

3rd Round: Norwich (A) 1-2 (Mullins, Zamora)
4th Round: Blackburn (H) 4-2 (Etherington, OG, Zamora, Sheringham)
5th Round: Bolton (A) 0-0
5th Round replay: Bolton (H) 2-1 (OG, Harewood)
6th Round: Man City (A) 1-2 (Ashton 2)
Semi Final: Middlesbrough (N) 1-0 (Harewood)

1. Which players have been the driving force behind West Hams cup run?
Without question, West Ham have been driven through a real team effort throughout the rounds. Shaka Hislop has had to make vital saves, Danny Gabbidon and Anton Ferdinand have been superb at centre back, whilst James Collins made telling contributions in the latter rounds. In midfield, Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun, Nigel Reo Coker and Hayden Mullins have been amazing as well, however West Hamís attack has remained a strong point all season. All 4 of the Hammers strikers have got on the scoresheet in the cup run, but the players to look out for in Cardiff will be player of the year Gabbidon, and runner up Marlon Harewood.

2. What is the West Ham strategy likely to be for the cup final?
What itís been all season, play good football, play 4-4-2 and work hard with our young side. Whenever Alan Pardew has ventured away from the 4-4-2 system this year, it has normally led to catastrophic results. My personal opinion is that with Liverpoolís defence naturally playing so deep, that we should really press up and force them onto the back foot, taking the game to them with our young side. Sheringham could also have a huge impact as he did when the teams met a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Pardew has a very difficult selection dilemma up front right now.

3. Which player in particular is vital to this strategy leading to success?
Dean Ashton has really given the team something different up front since Christmas, but his fitness is in doubt for the Cup final. Pardew will be expecting Gabbidon and Ferdinand to handle Liverpoolís strikers with ease, hopefully giving Paul Konchesky the opportunity to bomb forward on the left hand side. If West Ham are going to win this game, it will be through Konchesky and Etherington on the left hand side. The two have linked superbly all season and it seems most of our attacks flow from there.

4. How big a loss is it to be missing some players?
Absolutely massive, a far bigger loss than what Liverpool will need to cope with due to our diminutive squad size. West Ham have literally no depth in their squad beyond the starting 11. There are fitness concerns over Paul Konchesky, Matthew Etherington and Dean Ashton. Add to that the banning of Hayden Mullins, and we would be really struggling. Assuming everyone is passed fit, even Mullins would be a loss, as he can only realistically be replaced by Christian Dailly or Carl Fletcher, with Fletcher the more likely after his goal against Spurs on Sunday.

5. Is there a weak link in the West Ham team?
A major weak link comes in the form of right back Lionel Scaloni. Things have gotten so bad, that Collins has been drifted in at centre back, moving Anton Ferdinand over to the right, just so Scaloni doesnít have to play. Other than that, other weaknesses will appear in the centre of midfield with either Fletcher or Dailly playing, and wherever else we may have injuries.

6. Which opposition player(s) do you fear the most?
Without a doubt Liverpoolís strength is their defence, and their strong midfield. For my money, Alonso and Gerrard are as good a pairing as any duo in the country, and Riise is always a threat. Carragher has had another immense season, and should probably be in the England team at this point. Looking the other way, I really donít feel threatened by Liverpoolís attack at all. Itís without doubt the weakest part of their team, to the extent where I feel West Hamís best chance is a 0-0 followed by a penalty shootout victory.

7. What is your prediction?
Finally, my prediction is for Liverpool to win 2-1 after a gallant fight from West Ham. I only hope the Hammerís donít disgrace themselves in the final like Wigan did in the League Cup final, and the young lads go out there and show they deserve this opportunity to play on the grandest domestic stage of all.

Shane LeRoy:

Liverpoolís road to Cardiff:
Liverpool encountered 4 fellow Premier League teams on the road to Cardiff in what must be considered a tough route by any standards. Ironically, championship side Luton Town gave Liverpool their biggest scare, leading 3-1 with less than 30 minutes to go, before eventually collapsing to a 3-5 defeat. Encounters against The Premiership's top two sides lay ahead, but Liverpool emerged to take their place in Cardiff this Saturday.

3rd Round: Luton Town (A) 3-5 (Gerrard, Sinama-Pongolle (2), Xabi Alonso (2))
4th Round: Portsmouth (A) 1-2 (Riise, Gerrard)
5th Round: Man Utd. (H) 1-0 (Crouch)
6th Round: Birmingham (A) 0-7 (Hyypia, Crouch (2), Morientes, Tebily (O.G), Riise, Cisse)
Semi-Final: Chelsea (N) 1-2 ( Riise, Garcia)

1. Which players have been the driving forces behind Liverpoolís cup run?
Peter Crouch has undeniably been a key figure in Liverpoolís road to Cardiff. Following a quiet showing against Luton in the opening game, Crouch notched the winner in the tie of the fifth round against old rivals Manchester United. For a 6í7 giant, Crouch is ironically not noted for his power-heading. However, on this occasion he stooped to divert Steve Finnanís cross onto the inside of the post and into the back of the net. Not only was it the winner in a big cup game, it also signalled that this Liverpool team could compete against the biggest sides in the land, a feat hitherto unproven during Benitezís reign. Crouch also lead the line expertly against the hapless Birmingham City, scoring twice in the process to send Liverpool on their way. In the Semi-final against Chelsea, Crouch more than held his own against arguably the best defender in the world in John Terry and gave Liverpool a focal point from which to launch Harry Kewell, Luis Garcia and Steven Gerrard. All in all, Crouch is as big a reason as any as to why Liverpool are in Cardiff this Saturday. Credit is also due to players like Florent Sinama-Pongolle, John-Arne Riise and Mohammed Sissoko for telling contributions at vital times throughout the cup-run.

2. What is the Liverpool strategy likely to be for the cup final?
I think the obvious strategy will be to try to dominate in midfield. If Xabi Alonso is passed fit, I would expect Sissoko and Gerrard to partner him in a three man midfield. Liverpool will hope to over-power the skilful, yet smaller and less experienced West Ham midfield players to set the tone for the game. Liverpool will seek to dictate the pace of the game so that it interrupts West Hamís all action style. West Ham flourish on quick counter attacks and slick passing moves and by keeping hold of the ball for long periods through assured passing, Liverpool can frustrate the underdogs.

3. Which player in particular is vital to this strategy leading to success?
Injury permitting, the key man is playmaker Xabi Alonso. Having established himself as one of the best passers of the ball in the game, Alonso plays like the conductor to Liverpoolís orchestra. Alonso can receive the ball in tight spaces, manoeuvre a little bit of room, and deliver an inch-perfect pass to the wide men to create opportunities going forward. There is no better dictator of tempo in England than Xabi Alonso, and he is the key man to his teamís success.

4. How big a loss is it to be missing some players?
Due to his current form, Robbie Fowlerís absence due to being cup-tied is a loss. While the other strikers - particularly Morientes and Cissť- have spurned numerous chances this season, Robbie has shown flashes of his old predatory self over the past 10 games. In a tight game against a good opposition like West Ham, chances may be at a premium, and Robbie is the player Ėwith the possible exception of Steven Gerrard- who you would most want a chance to fall to. Liverpool are also missing Spanish livewire Luis Garcia for the big game following his spat with Hayden Mullins in the corresponding league fixture last month. While he is a highly frustrating player to watch, there can be no doubt that he raises his game for the big occasion and has a knack of scoring important goals, and for that Liverpool will miss him. All in all, I think Liverpool are in a better position to cope with injuries and suspensions than West Ham due to the larger squad Rafa Benitez has at his disposal.

5. Is there a weak link in the Liverpool team?
The only notable weakness in this Liverpool team lies with the front men. This season Liverpoolís rivals all scored far more goals than the men from Anfield. Chelsea and Man Utd scored 72 goals each while Arsenal scored 68. Liverpool could only manage a relatively paltry 57 throughout the campaign. With Fowler absent we rely on the inconsistent Cissť and Morientes and the shot shy Crouch to score goals. Obviously this leaves a lot of pressure on Steven Gerrard's shoulders, and if he gets shut out of the game, I would worry as to where the goals will come from.

6. Which opposition player(s) do you fear the most?
There are several West Ham players who concern me. Nigel Reo-coker is a very tidy player who creates space and opportunities for team-mates. Yossi Benayoun has a touch of guile in him and can create something out of nothing in an instant. The potential strike force of Marlon Harewood and Dean Ashton also worry me, Ashton particularly so due to a rare combination of power, pace and finishing ability. He is certainly a player I would like to see at Anfield in a red jersey some day. Truthfully, the West Ham offence as a unit worry me even more than any individual player as it is their cohesive interplay that is their biggest strength.

7. What is your prediction?
I am going to nail my colours to the mast and predict Steven Gerrard to lift the famous trophy this Saturday evening. I think it will be a very close game, but an enjoyable game to watch. As I say, I expect it to be close, possibly even going to extra-time before Liverpool eek out a 2-1 victory. I certainly wouldnít be stunned or embarrassed if Liverpool lose as I view West Ham as a very difficult challenge, albeit one Liverpool should overcome.

Closing thoughts

Paul: The UEFA Cup place has already been secured, but that wonít stop West Ham from wanting to win the cup. West Ham fans still fondly remember the early 1980ís West Ham team that not only won domestic and European honours, but also managed to come 3rd in the old division one in 1983. This team has some large boots to fill, but with the young players coming so far in such a short time, some around the Boleyn ground have reason to be hugely optimistic for the future.

Shane: Though the F.A cup may have lost some of itís lustre in recent years due to the riches of Champions League qualification and the fielding of weakened sides, there is no doubt that it remains a very special day in the football calendar. The presence of two clubs who are making giant strides towards the level of yesteryear, and the presence of so many young English stars of the future are added bonuses. It promises to be an enjoyable afternoon on Saturday regardless of result, but I, of course, will be hoping it is the men in red who emerge victorious.

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