Arsenal and Liverpool’s respective weeks could not have been more different. Arsene Wenger’s men floundered in the Champions League, their flimsy squad made to look distinctly malnourished by a true European heavyweight. For Liverpool’s players, however, a mid-season jolly to La Manga will have been a welcome rest after their chaotic January which saw them play a hamstring-shredding nine games in thirty days. Defeat to Wolverhampton in the last round of the FA Cup left them without a game for two weeks and Jurgen Klopp gleefully implements his own winter break, something he has advocated before.
Defeat to Wolves gave Klopp a chance to recharge his players’ batteries, which were surely near empty as they strain to adapt to the German’s high-intensity style. It has often seemed that for some top level teams the world’s longest running football competition has become a bit of an irrelevance. Of course, the big boys have always rotated their squads when playing lower league teams but Pep Guardiola’s decision to change eight of his starting eleven when playing a team flying high in the league below them seemed rash.
Dwarfed by the financial weight of the Premier League and the glitz and glamour of the Champions League, the FA Cup can become somewhat overshadowed. Financially, even winning the whole shebang would be almost irrelevant for the top clubs who are most likely to lift the trophy. The winners will pick up around £3.4 million; barely enough to raise an eyebrow in most Premier League boardrooms. An earth shattering amount for lower leagues teams, but roughly equivalent to eight months of Fabian Delph’s wages for Manchester City.
Perhaps then, the FA Cup has become the stage for the lower league teams, a place where Proper Football™ and boggy pitches can conspire to level the playing field and give the little guy a go in the limelight. As a Shrewsbury Town fan myself, one of my greatest footballing memories came as an eight-year-old, watching my local team in the FA Cup. Defeating Everton (and a fledgling Wayne Rooney) has become part of both FA Cup and Shrewsbury folklore. The fact that the Gay Meadow pitch was only slightly better suited to free-flowing attacking football than the housing development that now stands there was irrelevant.
Every single year, lower league teams tame the big dogs and write their own piece of history, helping their clubs prosper for years to come. Just this weekend, Lincoln City travelled to Turf Moor, home of the fourth best home record in the Premier League, and booked their place in the quarter-finals. They became the first non-league club to reach the quarter-finals in 103 years on Saturday, and Sutton United, willed on by the overwhelming majority of football fans, can do the same on Monday night if they beat Arsenal. Sutton’s heroics have been rewarded with £250,000 worth of television money for their tie with the Gunners; money which will be used to improve facilities and ensure that the club can continue to entertain their loyal fans. Who knows, manager Paul Doswell may even get paid at some point.
But it would be unfair to this great competition to regard it as little more than light amusement during a break from the Premier League. Of course, commentators will continue to gleefully point out that their top scorer works as a painter and decorator and there is a milkman in nets, but we should not forget that this is also an elite competition.
As Chelsea ride to the title at a canter, there is surely more reason than ever for the other top clubs to make the FA Cup their priority this season. For both Manchester clubs, it gives them a chance to pick up some silverware in their first season under new managers. It would give Arsene Wenger a fitting last hurrah and rescue a floundering season if he was to become the first manager to win the Cup seven times. A trophy would also be most welcome at White Hart Lane, where Pocchetino’s excellent early work at Tottenham needs to be honoured with the silverware that it deserves. For Chelsea too, the FA Cup could complete a hugely impressive debut double for Antonio Conte, as his side look to become only the third team this century to complete a domestic double in England.
The world’s oldest football competition is a welcome addition to even the most bulging trophy cabinets, not least Jose Mourinho’s. After publically blaming himself for not prioritising the FA Cup during his first season at Chelsea, he will make no such mistakes this time around and has named impressive teams during the early fixtures of this season’s competition. Success breeds success and 4-0 victories over Reading and Wigan were unsurprisingly followed by a five-game unbeaten run in the league.
The FA Cup then, offers something for all involved, whether hare or tortoise. For all that it has been undermined and overshadowed, The Football Association Challenge Cup continues to enthrall die-hard fans and curious neutrals every season. Klopp may prefer to focus on the league and give his players some rest, but it is no surprise to me that his men returned from La Manga on Sunday. He knows how hard it will be to find the Sutton game on television out in Spain.
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