MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Andrey Arshavin of Arsenal and Fabio Da Silva of Manchester United battle for the ball during the FA Cup sponsored by E.On Sixth Round match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on March 12, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

English Premier League, Weekend Review: FA Cup Takes The Spotlight As The Top Tier Takes The Week Off

Though no Premier League games took place this weekend, seven top-division teams took part in FA Cup action. Manchester United's quest for a League/Cup double rolls along, while Reading's giant-killing dreams come to an end at the Eastlands.

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English Premier League, Weekend Review: FA Cup Takes The Spotlight As The Top Tier Takes The Week Off

It would be overly dramatic to to use the term "tail spin" to describe Arsenal's troubles of late. They are just three points behind Manchester United with a game in hand, after all. With that said, the Gunners are clearly having a difficult run as of late and Manchester United's 2-0 victory at Old Trafford will only serve to add to their misery. In a game that was far more closely contested than the final scoreline might indicate, it was United's ability to finish their chances that put them through to the semi-finals and a date with rivals Manchester City.

On an afternoon where Arsenal dominated possession and had twice the shots on target, it was United that made them count; Manuel Almunia was unable to control a header from Javier Hernandez and Fabio Da Silva, playing on the wing as opposed to his regular position of full back, collected the rebound and put United ahead half an hour in. Arsenal were able to put Edwin van der Sar to the test shortly after the break but the keeper was equal to the challenge and minutes later Wayne Rooney collected another Hernandez rebound and put United up 2-0. That's how it would stay, and though Arsenal are certainly still in contention for the league crown it will take a masterful bit of motivation from Arsene Wenger to help curtail the Gunners' downward momentum.

While United's hope for a double lives on, Birmingham City's dream of a double of another sort ended at St. Andrews on Saturday with the Blues going down 2-3 to Bolton. The game looked headed to extra time but substitute Chung-Yong Lee's header in the 90th minute erased Kevin Phillips' 80th minute equalizer and sent Bolton through to face Stoke City in the semi-finals. Birmingham were forced to start a less-than-their-best side due to several key injuries but they gave Bolton all they could muster and the visitors were perhaps somewhat fortunate to escape with the victory. The Wanderers opened the scoring 21 minutes in after Johan Elmander found Ivan Klasnic's flick on and hammered past Ben Foster. Cameron Jerome brought things level just before the break after a sloppy David Wheater clearance attempt fell to the striker who wasted little time in firing a scorcher past an out-of-position Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Birmingham looked the better side most of the day, holding a not-insignificant edge in possession and creating more chances than the visitors, but it was an ill-advised Curtis Davies challenge that cost the Blues a chance at a second trip to Wembley. The Birmingham defender, brought in from Aston Villa in January, hauled down Kevin Davies in the box and the Bolton striker converted his own penalty to put Bolton ahead 66 minutes in. Typical of their performance on the day, Birmingham refused to give in and Kevin Phillips restored level terms in the 80th minute with a gorgeous volley from 25 yards out. With momentum swinging Birmingham's way, the sense that they would emerge victorious from extra time was palpable. In that sense, Lee's winner was even more than a blow than would have been expected. Bolton win the right to face Stoke City in the semi-finals, clearly a more favorable match up than either of the Manchester sides, and they continue to prove that their place in the table is no accident as the season enters the home stretch.

There was a late winner at the Eastlands as well, with Micah Richards 74th minute header all that separated Manchester City from Championship side Reading. It was yet another underwhelming performance from City, but in the only sense that matters they came out ahead. Reading's back line proved far more difficult a test than most had anticipated but they were unable to pose any real threat in the attack, managing only one shot on target all game. It was apparent from very early on that Reading were looking to have things end level, and while the strategy very nearly paid dividends it certainly did not make for the world's most thrilling contest.

Roberto Mancini has been criticized by fans and pundits alike for his defensive-minded approach that sometimes leads to less than enthralling games, but it's likely that an FA Cup victory (not to mention the defeat of United that would be required for such a thing to happen) would make it easier for City fans and ownership to look past such complaints. It would be unfair to Bolton and Stoke to consider the Wembley-held Manchester Derby the de-facto final, but it's quite obviously the more enticing of the two semi-final ties and whichever side comes out on top will certainly be the favorite. City are in bad shape in Europa League, almost certainly won't be winning the Premier League and though they'll most likely be playing in the Champions League their position is slightly more tenuous than perhaps it should be. In that sense, the FA Cup is their best chance by far at having a tangible reward for their investment that they can lay claim to this season. Given the expectations placed upon Roberto Mancini, it seems fair to say that it would behoove him to dedicate a great deal of energy to making sure that they do.

In the only game of the weekend not involving a team in the top half of the Premier League table, Stoke City erased any realistic possibility of both of England's Cup competitions being won by teams that ended the season with relegation by defeating West Ham 2-1 at Britannia Stadium. Robert Huth put the Potters on top just 12 minutes in, heading home a Rory Delap throw-in. It looked for a time as though Stoke would put things to bed early on as they dominated play for the majority of the first half, but Frederic Piquionne leveled half an hour in with a controversial goal; upon replay, it appears that Piquionne used the top of his arm to control Thomas Hitzlsperger's delivery before sliding the ball past Robert Green. Piquionne was injured by Huth on the play, and was forced to withdraw in favor of Johnathan Spector. Karmic retribution, perhaps?

The leveler clearly put the spark back into West Ham but it was very nearly extinguished just 12 seconds into the second half when Matthew Etherington was awarded the most questionable of penalties after allegedly being fouled by Scott Parker. Green was able to block Eherington's effort to keep things even, but Stoke would go ahead from a Danny Higganbotham free-kick that was drilled through the wall, off a helpless Green's hand, off the post and over the line. West Ham battled back and threatened Stoke relentlessly the rest of the way, having a seemingly legitimate shout for penalty waved off after Johnathan Walters pulled down James Tomkins in the box during a West Ham free kick. Matthew Upson hit the bar just two minutes later, Thomas Sorensen had to call on every inch of his body to deflect Carlton Cole's low, driven effort past the post in the 89th minute. In the end, Stoke will move ahead to Wembley while West Ham will be left with some legitimate complaints as they stare down the barrel of a relegation fight.

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