Two magicians of the midfield go head-to-head for a spot in the semi-final, in quite possibly the toughest vote so far of the entire tournament. Unfortunately, only one can win and that power is in your hands...
Here we are once again with Steed Malbranque, only this time he actually faces a real challenge in the form of Julio Arca.
You have to give Arca his due - he was an immensely popular player at the club for a reason. A cult hero who also had that slither of quality that made him a genuine top division footballer. If he was up against anyone else here, I'd probably be voting for him myself. But he isn't up against just anyone. He is up against Steed Malbranque, and Steed was better.
How many Sunderland players have gone to Anfield and left three Liverpool players on their backsides as they nonchalantly shuffle away? One. How many Sunderland players have you genuinely looked forward to seeing all week long because you knew full well that at at least one point during the 90 minutes they'd have you out of your seat for all the right reasons? Certainly not many.
Arca was a similar kind of player to Malbranque. A flair player, easy on the eye, and capable of lighting up a dreary team. He just wasn't as good. There is no shame in it but it is the truth. When it comes to players of this ilk, Steed Malbranque is peerless in a Sunderland shirt over the last decade.
It is all too easy to say that Arca deserves extra credit because he played in a worse team. But it is surely much easier to shine and stand out in a bad team? Players like Stephen Elliott and Liam Lawrence looked decent in next to Jeff Whitley. Malbranque played in the same side as the likes of Darren Bent, Jordan Henderson, Asamoah Gyan, and Bolo Zenden and STILL stood out at Premier League level over a matter of years. For me, that deserves more recognition.
He didn't score many, but neither did Arca really in the top division. Was his final ball as good as it could have been? Not always, but neither was Arca's. His role in Darren Bent's 24-goal season was crucial though. He proved over and over again that if a player was making clever runs, he would find them.
This match-up will be close and will till at the heart-strings of many. However, if we take away the cult hero status of Arca and judge them as dispassionately as possible on the basis of football alone, Malbranque has to shade it. He was capable of more and delivered it on a more consistent basis and at a higher level.
Go with the head over the heart on this one. Vote Steed. He was, quite simply, a better footballer. (MG)
Ok, now I loved Steed Malbranque as a player. I'll also concede that Mike is a very convincing debater, meaning he has no doubt suitably used masterful delivery and invention techniques as the primary canons in his pro Steed Malbranque rhetoric. Well, it's time to snap out of it. Inhale the Julio Arca smelling salts and snap out of that trance. For all Steed's overall quality on the football field, aided by his awe-inspiring touch on the ball, the end product was often frustratingly absent. It supports the common notion that certain players would be too good for the sides they represent if they had that little bit extra in their game. Certainly Malbranque fits into this theory but it is still something that should see him fall just short in this competition.
The same can't be said about Arca.
After Arca's introduction into the side at 19 years of age, he shone so much that initial cries from the stands for him to replace Micky Gray in the side were replaced by the demands to play him regularly in midfield, such was his jaw dropping quality on the ball when Peter Reid successfully tried him there. It's my personal belief that he'd have went on to huge things had he not made this transition. But it was to Sunderland's benefit that he did. Because the freedom awarded to him simply solidified his love affair with Wearside and prevented him leaving earlier than he did. And boy did he bring the fans pleasure, normally the one ray of a light in a dull and dreary side. He could have left at any time yet stayed and blessed us with his skills.
There was the touch and control that Malbranque offered but, significantly, there was the end product. He scored free kicks, he scored screamers, lobs and had a composed finish when necessary. He had flair and creativity, meaning he could dribble to his heart's content or play a cross-field ball or defence splitting pass with ease. He was strong on the ball and hard in the tackle, he never let his man evade him and never threw himself to the floor when he became a target for rough treatment. He could cross the ball. He could even head the ball.
Malbranque was a fine player and this is probably a worthy final, but just place the two names together and tick the boxes. The Argentinian maestro will have more filled and he did it in a shocking team generally, certainly if we discount the Reid days due to the time span of this competition. He deserves a medal for preventing us from going crackers throughout this period. He just about made the Kevin Kyle's, Jeff Whitley's and Gary Breen's of this world tolerable. Had Reid built on that fine team we'd have seen an out and out superstar, yet he gave us the very best he could in the circumstances. And that was pretty darn great.
Vote our favourite adopted Mackem, Julio Arca. Do the right thing. (SG)
Be sure to make your vote count and send one of these two through to the next round. Make your voice heard below, because you only have until 11pm (GMT) tonight to get your vote in...