Rafael Benitez and Steve Bruce will be in opposition tonight as their clubs contest a place in the FA Cup semi-finals, but yesterday the managers of Liverpool and Birmingham City were united in condemning the decision to cram the sixth round into the midweek fixture list.
Benitez saw a dark irony in the Football Association's tinkering with tradition. By forcing Liverpool to play at Birmingham just 48 hours after emerging victorious from Newcastle, he claimed that the ruling body had increased the risk of injury to Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher barely three months before the pair represent England in the World Cup.
Gerrard has featured in 52 matches for club and country this season, and Carragher 53. "The players that play a lot are more at risk of injury than others," Benitez said. "The danger is greater when players have to play so many times in a short period. With the Birmingham match being so close to the one at Newcastle, I am sure you cannot see the best of players like Gerrard and Carragher."
Benitez added: "The idea is to help England and yet they are having to play twice in three days. It's impossible to do that and be at your best. Psychologically, the second day after any game is always the worst for a player. They simply cannot perform to their usual level."
Meeting a leg-weary, below-par Liverpool would be the kind of break Bruce needs after a wretched run of results and injuries. However, he felt that the FA had "devalued" the competition by switching the quarter-finals. "It's sad because I'm a great believer in the Cup," he said. "It's a fantastic tournament and we were just rebuilding its reputation. Surely, in a season that lasts 10 months, we could have found a suitable weekend."
The other effect of the scheduling was that West Ham fielded a weakened team on Saturday against one of Birmingham's relegation rivals, Portsmouth. Pompey won 4-2 but Bruce refused to dwell on the controversy beyond suggesting that he "did not like what happened".
He has more pressing concerns, with Birmingham likely to be without as many as 10 senior players tonight. Definitely out are the injured Chris Sutton, Julian Gray, Muzzy Izzet, Matthew Upson and Mehdi Nafti. "Major doubts", as Bruce termed them, include Nicky Butt, Jiri Jarosik, David Dunn and Emile Heskey. DJ Campbell is cup-tied, so Mikael Forssell may operate as a lone striker.
"To say it's not ideal would be an understatement," said Bruce, his downbeat mood proving that the most ebullient characters can be worn down by setbacks. "I'm sick to death of whingeing. I'm turned off by myself. We'd love to have a full complement to pick from. We haven't. The European champions are coming, so let's give it a crack."
Benitez, who rang the changes at Newcastle after the 5-1 rout of Fulham last Wednesday, is likely to do the same this evening. Mohamed Sissoko, who was told that he might lose full vision after sustaining an eye injury against Benfica last month, makes a surprise return to the squad. The midfielder may wear protective goggles if he is asked to play.
Birmingham have been "waiting to win a major trophy for 100 years", according to Bruce, although they are the only club against whom Benitez has not tasted victory. Assessing their confrontation in the context of the fixture pile-up, the Spaniard found further common ground with his rival.
"It's not the best situation," he said. "But the FA Cup is perhaps our only chance to win a trophy. My players know what they have to do."Reuse content