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The FA Cup: Fever pitch or an ailing trophy?

The Boot Room

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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.

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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.

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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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FA Cup

Three musts for Tottenham to achieve victory in their FA Cup semi-final

FA Cup success will be key to Tottenham’s season.

Max Cohen

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Photo: Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur face off against Manchester United in a high-profile FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, undoubtedly marking their biggest match of the season.

Here are three things Spurs must do to secure their place in the May 19 final.

Get Eriksen involved

Christian Eriksen has perhaps been Spurs’ standout player this season, delivering consistently superb performances and chipping in with crucial goals.

In order for Spurs to gain the upper hand against the Red Devils, the Danish midfielder must control the game and be at the heart of every Spurs attack.

If Eriksen is at his unplayable best, he can combine effortlessly with the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and break down the United backline with ease.

Keep Lukaku quiet

Romelu Lukaku presents United’s most potent goalscoring threat, and with 27 goals to his name this season, is enjoying a career-best year.

Lukaku came off the bench against Bournemouth on Wednesday and slotted home an assured finish, marking his eighth goal in his last ten appearances for club and country.

The Belgian’s red-hot form will give Tottenham’s centre-backs cause for concern, but his Belgian international teammates will have to be more than up to the fight to nullify Lukaku.

Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will know Lukaku’s strengths all too well and must be strong and resolute to deny the striker any whiff of goal.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Stop the feared United comeback

If Spurs end up taking the lead at Wembley, they must be vigilant of letting Manchester United back into the match.

The Red Devils have shown an incredible knack for getting back into matches; their 3-2 come-from-behind win at the Etihad is a prime example of that. United have also recently beat Crystal Palace after trailing 2-0, and clearly never consider themselves out of a match.

Tottenham must be mindful to not let their concentration slip when ahead, as Manchester United will surely make them pay.

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FA Cup

How Wigan Athletic have helped to rekindle the magic of the FA Cup

Wigan Athletic’s dramatic FA Cup fifth round victory over Premier League leaders Manchester City has helped to rekindle the magic of the competition, writes Rob Meech.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

FA Cup shocks don’t come much bigger than Wigan Athletic’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City.

The League One club produced a sensational performance to knock out the Premier League champions-elect, whose hopes of winning an unprecedented Quadruple were left in tatters.

Will Grigg was the unexpected hero for the hosts, as his 79th-minute strike sent the 2013 winners into the quarter-finals and the club’s supporters into dreamland.

Wigan’s adventure has been beset with obstacles.

But, one by one, these have been overcome and a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final is now a realistic proposition.

City are the third successive top-flight team to have been eliminated by the Latics, following Bournemouth and West Ham United who exited in rounds three and four, respectively.

Now, it is struggling Southampton that stand between Paul Cook’s men and the last four.

Arguably, City are the form team in Europe and one of the favourites to lift the Champions League.

But when it comes to the FA Cup, the form-book goes out of the window.

Despite being the runaway Premier League leaders, City succumbed to only their third defeat in all competitions this season.

Although the inevitable DW Stadium pitch invasion that greeted the final whistle sparked some unsavoury scenes, the result will be remembered as one of the greatest ever upsets.

There has been much talk about how the FA Cup has become devalued in recent years.

On top of an evening kick-off for the final, many clubs – not exclusive to the Premier League – field weakened teams and view the competition as an unwelcome distraction.

This has led to some pundits calling for it to be refreshed. Potential ideas include the scrapping of replays.

However, a by-product of big clubs treating the competition with disrespect is that the number of upsets has increased.

It’s not just Wigan who have sprung a surprise or two this season.

Coventry City belied their League Two status to dump out Stoke City in round three, while Newport County of the fourth division took Tottenham Hotspur to a money-spinning replay at Wembley Stadium.

League One’s Rochdale have done likewise in the fifth round, thanks to a dramatic stoppage-time equaliser at Spotland.

Despite what television companies might think, there is little appetite for watching two Premier League teams playing each other in the FA Cup.

Football enthusiasts want a chance to see the underdog have its day.

Wigan’s story has captured the imagination of supporters of all clubs, up and down the land.

Their stunning victory over a City side that, although not at full strength was nonetheless full of internationals, reinforced the legend of the FA Cup.

The romanticism of the competition has been rekindled this season, something for which Wigan deserve enormous credit.

Another factor is at play, though.

It may sound like a paradox, but if the FA Cup is to remain relevant then it needs the elite clubs to continue to treat it as an afterthought.

That way, shocks like Wigan’s will be repeated in seasons to come and interest in the world’s oldest domestic cup competition will remain high.

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FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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