DOMESTIC CUP competitions all over Europe are nearing their climax as unfashionable clubs do battle with the ‘big boys’ for glory and a potentially lucrative place in next season’s Uefa Cup draw. In England, West Ham claimed their first FA Cup semi-final place in almost 50 years, with a smooth 3-1 away success at Manchester City.

Liverpool travelled to St Andrews, but before the kick-off, beleaguered Birmingham boss, Steve Bruce, billed the match as his side’s last chance to salvage something from a season that had taken a disastrous downturn over the past months. Fifty-four seconds into the tie he was holding his head in his hands. That was the time needed for Sami Hyypia to latch onto a Steven Gerrard free kick, which began an avalanche that was to provide 90 minutes of embarrassing torture for Bruce and his players.

Peter Crouch scored three minutes later, and the tall striker made it 3-0 before the interval granted Birmingham a temporary reprieve. Liverpool returned not content to rest on their laurels. On the hour, Fernando Morientes tapped in a Gerrard cross, nine minutes later John Arne Riise scored from 30 yards out, and an Olivier Tébily own goal made it half-a-dozen on the night.

Djibril Cisse finished off the 7-0 massacre in emphatic style with two minutes to spare. On this evidence, Liverpool have rediscovered their scoring touch, while Birmingham are likely to ply their trade in a different division next season.

Chelsea started their game against Newcastle in equally explosive fashion at Stamford Bridge. A fourth minute John Terry strike threatened to initiate another rout, but the promised goal-feast never materialised. The score remained 1-0, Mourinho’s men progressed into the semis, and Alan Shearer’s last Cup campaign before retirement ended with a damp squib.

The last tie of the round between Charlton and Middlesbrough ended in a goalless draw at the valley, and will have to be replayed at the Riverside Stadium on April 12.

The draw: Lady luck produced yet another showdown between Chelsea and Liverpool, which will take place at Old Trafford on April 22. The likelihood that both teams will qualify for the Champions League via the Premiership, leaves the door to the Uefa Cup wide open. The other semi-final will be determined on April 23 at Villa Park, between West Ham and Charlton/Middlesbrough.

In Portugal, Porto and Sporting met in the first of the two semi-finals. The game remained goalless during the 90 minutes, forcing it into extra time. A Liedson header in the 109th minute seemed to settle matters in the Lisbon team’s favour, but McCarthy managed to conjure up an equaliser shortly afterwards. A penalty shoot-out became inevitable, Vítor Baia in the Porto goal stopping Moutinho’s fifth attempt for the visitors to send his side through to the final. Waiting there will be holders Setúbal, who rode their luck to overcome Guimarães. Again, both teams only managed to find the back of the net in extra time, in Setúbal’s case in the final seconds of the match, necessitating penalties. Here a total of five players failed to score, Guimarães’ Sérgio becoming the last to do so, to hand Setúbal the game.

In Holland, champions PSV Eindhoven eliminated AZ Alkmaar 2-0 to book their place in the final against Ajax Amsterdam, who needed extra time to dispose of Roda 4-1. Finally, Inter Milan and Parma hold the early advantage in Italy, after winning their semi-final first leg encounters with Udinese and AS Rome 1-0 and 2-1 respectively.

Breaking Hearts

FROM RUSSIA with love it is definitely not, rather a case of Lithuanian lunacy. The strangely successful yet troubled season of Scottish side Hearts of Midlothian continues under the Machiavellian stewardship of its Eastern European owner, Vladimir Romanov.

Back in October, popular manager George Burley was axed with the club proudly sitting on top of the league, unbeaten, and threatening to break the monotonous Celtic-Rangers duopoly. At the time, Burley found himself at loggerheads with the boardroom over tactics and team selection. Five months later, his replacement, Graham Rix, has become the latest victim of the Lithuanian troika’s flights of fancy. Despite guiding Hearts into second place in the league and the Scottish Cup semi-finals, the former Chelsea and Portsmouth boss was told by Romanov’s son, Roman, that “results were not what they should have been”. Rix has been replaced by another Lithuanian, interim manager Valdas Ivanauskas. Although Falkirk were beaten 2-1 last weekend, I cannot imagine that the chaos at Tynecastle has been created in order to please the fans, as directors have claimed.