FA Cup 'magic' lost in the money


The FA Cup is up-for-grabs this season, with league-leaders Manchester City out of the competition and second-place Manchester United suffering a similar fate in the following round.

With 16 teams left, there are still plenty of big names in the hat, with Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool all favourites to reach the quarter-finals ahead of this weekend's ties.

For Spurs, winning the competition would be a major bonus in a season that's seen them challenge for the title, but more importantly create an almost unassailable gap between themselves in third and the chasing pack behind.

"I just keep looking at the gap between us and Arsenal. I'd be lying if I said otherwise," Redknapp told reporters after the win over Newcastle at the weekend.

"I look at the top as well, but we really want Champions League football - that's the key."

Where does the Cup, one of the oldest and most historic trophies in world football, rank amongst their priorities? A distant second, unfortunately.

It's a sad but realistic fact that finishing in the top four is now far more important than a trip to Wembley and winning some silverware. The financial reward that comes with reaching Europe's premier club competition far outweighs the glory of domestic success.

For mid-table Premier League teams and below, the competition does provide a chance to reach Europe, with a Europa League qualifying place handed to the winner. If a 'big' team wins the competition, then it's often the runner-up who takes the position, as Stoke City have found to their advantage this season.

Their qualification from the group stages, and subsequent last 32 tie against Valencia, has shown the value of taking the competition seriously if you’re in the Premier League's middle-ground.

But, if your fighting relegation, then the Cup weekend can offer you a chance to rest your first team regulars. There are several instances where managers are happy to throw-in the towel in the competition, saving energy, time and effort to focus on staying in the Premier League.

Again, it's a decision motivated by the finances at the very top of the game. Staying in the Premier League can be worth as much as £50 million. Winning the Cup? A fraction of the price, unfortunately.

If the above theory is true, then only a small collection of clubs in the middle-tier of the Premier League really want to win the FA Cup. Add 72 Football League clubs and every side below that level in the country, and you've still got a pretty good competition.

But this season, the Cup takes on extra significance for some teams that it normally wouldn't, most notably Chelsea and Liverpool.

Andre Villas-Boas is under significant pressure at Stamford Bridge, with owner Roman Abramovich a regular and significant presence at the club's training ground in recent weeks.

After four games without a win in the league, this weekend's fifth round clash against Birmingham represents two things - a break from the league and a hiding to nothing.

Chelsea are hot favourites to beat their Championship opponents. If they don't, then Villas-Boas' future in west London would very much be called into question.

Win, and it still won't be enough. Abramovich enjoyed great success during his early years with the Blues, with league titles claimed alongside the odd domestic Cup success.

But just winning the FA Cup is not enough for the Blues anymore. They have never slipped out of the top four since the Russian's arrival on the King's Road, and only winning the Champions League would be accepted if this were to happen.

Liverpool famously achieved that back in 2004-05 season, when Steven Gerrard revived the Reds' fortunes to beat AC Milan in the Champions League final. The Reds had finished fifth in the league, but qualified for next season's competition as holders.

Whilst the rules have changed, winning the competition still secures entry the following season - hence why the Chelsea hierarchy would accept such a success.

Referring to the Reds, they are the other exception to the FA Cup rule this season. Having reached the Carling Cup final, a domestic double would be heralded as a major achievement.

For Kenny Dalglish, whose position is not in danger at Anfield despite the recent Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, a double would vindicate his strong selections in both competitions.

The problem for Liverpool is that, for all their history and tradition, they are no longer one of the 'top four' favourites. Whilst they were one of the original quartet who dominated in the division and earned the tag at the turn of the millennium, failing to finish in the coveted positions in the 2009-10 has seen them quickly fall back.

And, just two seasons on, they are on the periphery and underdogs to return. Finishing fifth would be seen as less of a failure, from the outside looking in at least, in comparison to Chelsea and Arsenal.

With that in mind, the Cups have extra significance for the Reds.

As for Arsenal - you can be sure that Arsene Wenger will happily drop out of the competition if a top four finish could be guaranteed. Expect Wenger to rest some of his top players at the weekend for the clash at Sunderland, further proof of the competition's standing for the Gunners.

That's not to say that the Frenchman doesn't want to win the FA Cup. It just isn't as important.

United and City will be disappointed they aren't in action this weekend and can't claim some silverware come May. But, Ferguson and Mancini won't be having a sleepless night like when they dropped out of the Champions League in December.

Yes, the Cup is enough. But not for everyone, unfortunately.

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