A tournament that rarely excites anymore is ready to host two giant clashes, writes Ste McGovern.
The FA Cup is an anachronism. It’s a symbol of glories past, of childhood memories, of a game played in a different time. It’s not the same as it once was, and never again will it be. Winning it used to be the pinnacle for many a British player. Now it’s hard to place what it even means in the modern game.
Not even Championship clubs bother putting out their first string teams anymore. Premier League sides, with squads presumably big enough to withstand the added load, who haven’t won a trophy in decades -- or, in some cases, ever -- can’t be arsed seeing out the third round. Denying a dancing Pards in 2016’s showpiece final wasn’t enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s bacon in the end.
It’s just a weird competition; we’re told of this magical tournament, of its special place in the game, and no one -- not the players, managers or fans -- could care less about the games. That’s not to say none of the above would like to win it. They do, but it’s often not worth the effort to get there unless you can wade your way through the thicket of lower division opposition without affecting your league position. And that’s where our four semi-finalists come in.
Ask Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the season whether or not the FA Cup was a priority, and you could safely bet your house on them all answering ‘No’, assuming of course they’re being honest and not just paying hollow deference to a glorified tin pot.
Aside from City, they have all fielded much weakened teams on cup weekends up to this point. It is by chance as much as strength of depth that they have made it this far. And now that they have, they might as well go all out to try and bring it home. Notwithstanding that, the cup actually means something this time around.
While Chelsea and Spurs are still battling it out for the title, City and Arsenal are fighting for a spot in the top four. This is their last chance for a major trophy this season, one that could put a glossy sheen on a testing time for these clubs.
Pep Guardiola, perhaps not entirely privy to the tradition of treating cup ties in England as if they are reserve team games, has hardly taken his foot off the pedal in this competition even when it might have seemed better to do so. For all the talk of the Spaniard’s marriage to a philosophy, an ideology that takes precedence over winning, his true love is success. Many expected City to be on their way to a third Premier League by now, but it’s been a weird one for the Sky Blues. They play some of the nicest football in Europe, and their underlying statistics would have you thinking they should be higher up the table. They will settle for a cup for now, knowing they surely have bigger fish to fry in the future.
For Arsenal it goes without saying. Wenger has never felt more vulnerable at anytime during his reign in London, with the crowds baying for blood over the lack of tangible success. Not that it bothers his superiors, but there is pressure on him to deliver. The FA Cup is the easiest way to present some form of glory, as they gun for a third in four years. While they have actually regressed since those triumphs, another should offer a sweet release for the fans, if only temporary at least. And regaining their status as the most successful team in the competition from Man United is always a nice tribal bonus.
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☇Win two tickets to An Evening With The Blizzard next week - just RT & Follow to be in the draw!☇ pic.twitter.com/4eHPm8Q4XZ— The Final Third (@TheFinal_Third) April 18, 2017
A few weeks ago the cup appeared to be a mere distraction from Chelsea's runaway form in the league. With no European football in their way they could just focus on maintaining momentum against the likes of Peterborough, Wolves and Brentford. In light of their defeat to United, however, doubts are starting to emerge. Are they as strong as everyone assumed? Will they hold on to win the league? A victory over their local rivals, the only ones who can wrest the title from them, would put pay to all of those questions.
This tie is amazing timing for both sides, but especially for Spurs. It’s a golden opportunity for the north Londoners to give them the fear, manifest that seed of doubt inside their cross city rivals. Victory might also banish the memories of last year’s late season collapse, not that it seems it’s been on the mind of the players ever since -- they have accrued the most points of any team in the league since the start of the 2015/16 season. Critically though, they have no silverware to show for it. The most important thing about this competition for Spurs is the winning mentality it can help instill.
Ideally Saturday's game would be a straight playoff for the league, but the knockout manner of the tie will give it an old school feel. Whatever happens, the FA Cup won’t just be an afterthought this weekend.