13th March 2017
When the earlier rounds of the FA Cup were throwing up romance and the sight of a man losing his job for eating a pie, the big clubs were still looking sniffily at the competition. The FA Cup was, at best, a chance to blood some new faces and at worst an excuse for a stolen winter break if you didn’t make it through to the next round.
Things have settled and solidified in the Premier League though. Chelsea haven’t done a Devon Loch. They are strong front runners. The three teams already through to the semi-finals, Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal all know that an FA Cup win will be better than nowt at the end of this season. They will be joined in the draw by either Manchester United or Chelsea. Only Antonio Conte’s team can still afford to be relaxed about the FA Cup.
Liverpool who were as cavalier as anybody about the FA Cup got themselves a break in La Manga for their troubles but they find themselves digging in now for a battle to spare themselves a tour of duty in the Europa League next season. No matter how much Liverpool talked up the business of getting to the final last year against Sevilla those never-ending Thursday night clashes took it out of a high energy team like Jurgen Klopp’s. An FA Cup win this year wouldn’t spare them that fate but it would have made a pleasant end to a disappointing season at Anfield. Liverpool are in fourth but have played two games more than Arsenal or United behind them. Tricky.
For the teams above Liverpool there is always the Cup. Just ask Messrs Guardiola, Pochettino or Wenger this morning how they feel about the prospect of running around Wembley in the company of some famous silverware on a nice May afternoon. Winning the FA Cup doesn’t mean not having to say you are sorry, but it makes the apologies and the rationalisations a little easier.
For Manchester City this weeks trip to Monaco is fraught with danger. Now that the dust has settled on that crazy first leg all that matters is that Monaco have a two goal deficit but three away goals. They also have young Kylian Mbappe who seems to have hit the sort of consistency that City as a team can only dream about, David Silva aside.
Spurs have been cantering along gamely for some time now and if they can finish top four AND ahead of Arsenal it will be a more than decent season. A Cup win though would be a nice tangible gift for fans who have made so many disappointing excursions to Wembley this year.
And then of course there is poor Arsenal. Enough said.
Tonight’s game is the pick of the round though. When the minnows are cleared and the romance goes out of the Cup the interconnectedness with the Premier League is heightened.
Chelsea against Manchester United is a Cup game that has implications all the way down the line into next season.
Antonio Conte’s cloudless reign at Stamford Bridge must make Jose Mourinho a little bit nauseous anytime he thinks about it. Of course Mourinho has moved on, as always, but the ignominious end to his second coming at Chelsea has left its mark. His last days at Chelsea revealed weaknesses and this year with the expensive human shields of Pogba and Zlatan deployed he has been a quieter figure.
He has moaned about the arduous nature of the Europa League campaign but looking at the inconsistencies in his team, he is surely beginning to appreciate that winning the bloody thing might provide the best chance of getting United back into the Champions League with the big boys.
Mourinho seems never to count on having more than three years at any club and as such next year will be his second and middle year at United. To be faffing about on the highways and byways of the Europa League for another season would probably impact on his final year as well. The strength of his brand cannot afford another inglorious exit from another big club. Mourinho needs to take something more than the League Cup from this season.
Without the totemic Zlatan available to him tonight how will he play his cards though? Does he go all in knowing that the fixture list is already epic for his patchy team? Can he do anything less as he knows that another loss to Conte on the scale of last October’s 4-0 drubbing might define United’s relationship with Chelsea and his relationship with Conte.
Mourinho has certainly come a long way since the opening weeks of the season and defeats for his side have become a rarity. One loss in twenty eight games though has done little to change their league position. For all the huffing and puffing they have drawn too often and have gone from sixth place all the way to sixth place. They play Chelsea tonight and Rostov on Thursday of this week. Mourinho may feel that something has got to give and the FA Cup may be it.
On the other hand United have to play Chelsea, Arsenal Spurs and City in the league before the season ends. Chelsea is the only home fixture among that four. Tossing away the FA Cup is a gamble that will look reckless if Champions League football for next year isn’t somehow secured.
Then there is the personal aspect. Mourinho is a proud man. The manner of United’s defeat on their last visit to Stamford Bridge has to have hurt him deeply. Anything along those lines would be impossible for him to stomach tonight.
To make matters worse that hammering was the third game in the massive Chelsea upswing which followed their loss to Chelsea. Since then Conte has gone from being an early season favourite for the sack to being the clear favourite to win manager of the year.
Conte is the unlikely winner in the big name manager sweepstakes for this year and part if that is down to how well he has carried himself. There is no sign of the hyper sensitive figure Conte presented when he was managing Juventus. He presents himself as being above the sort of mind games that Mourinho enjoys so much.
Antonio Conte can afford to let the FA Cup get away this season if he chooses. It might be wisest for Mourinho to let it go for now also. Tonight’s game has so many different under currents running through it however that it just isn’t as simple as that for either man.
When Lincoln City went home empty handed on Saturday the FA Cup lost the last bit of romance for this year but with its intrigue, antagonisms and high stakes gambling the Chelsea-United relationship more than compensates.
By Niall Quinn