Friday, 3 January 2014

Who needs the FA Cup the most?

The first week of January is a significant one in the English football calendar as it heralds both the re-opening of the transfer window and the entry of the Premier League and Championship teams into the FA Cup. Barring a sensational upset, this years winners are entering the competition this weekend. Here's a look at some teams with designs on the famous trophy in 2014 and which one of them could do with cup glory the most:

The case for Arsenal

The last time Arsenal won a trophy there was no such thing as Twitter. There were no iPhones, the PS2 was still the most advanced gaming console around. HD TV hadn't come into our lives, nor had Blu-Ray, no version of Windows existed beyond XP, Wifi had yet to be invented. This was way back in May 2005 when a team led by Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires were very fortunate to beat Manchester United on penalties at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff to win the FA Cup.

Arsenal's last trophy photo features Vieira, Ashley Cole and a teenage Cesc

The longer this drought goes on the greater the burden of expectation grows on the players. The FA Cup represents for them the simplest path to silverware this year, granted they overcome North-London rivals Tottenham this weekend. Yes they are top of the league but Man City look to have sorted out their patchy away form and are building serious momentum. On top of that they beat Arsenal 6-3 when the sides met in early December. I doubt any English side is good enough to win the Champions League this season and Arsenal have probably the toughest last 16 opponent in Bayern Munich.

In terms of needing a trophy, Arsenal definitely have a better case than any of the other top sides. It is very rare in modern football for a manager to survive nine years in a job without delivering silverware but Wenger so far has proved the exception. This year is different somewhat in that he's invested  heavily in the squad, paying £42m for Ozil and so some return on this is now expected rather than wished for. The mythical trophy for 4th place will no longer satisfy this club. They need actual honours.

The case for Man United

The FA Cup in 1990 is widely regarded as the trophy that saved Alex Ferguson's job as Manchester United manager. However that was four years into his reign and he had inherited a side accustomed to finishing in the upper mid-table. David Moyes inherited league champions so a trophy in his debut season would be a merely satisfactory ending to what has so far been a trying year for the Scot.

Since the 1990 success, Ferguson's first trophy at the club, Man United have only endured five barren seasons out of twenty-three. The current generation of fans have grown up expecting success and only that will appease them. Retaining the title is beyond them at this stage, as is a fourth Champions League title so the best chance the fans have of some silverware this year is either this competition or the League Cup, where they get their semi-final tie with Sunderland under way on Tuesday evening.

United have had a very up and down couple of months

Ask a United fan to choose between the FA and League Cups and virtually every one will chose the former. The club has won this competition a record eleven times and is deeply ingrained in its illustrious history. However they have not tasted success since 2004 and the feeling that the club is overdue a twelfth FA Cup success has been lingering for a while now. But given their shockingly unpredictable form lately, three home defeats in their last four games, it's not hard to imagine them going out with a whimper to Swansea on Sunday evening.

The case for Chelsea

Jose Mourinho had spent three full seasons at Chelsea prior to this one. The first two ended in Premier League wins and the third in a domestic cup double. The man just hoovers up trophies wherever he goes. In fact, if you count the 2012 Spanish Super Cup (which you can be sure he does), he has not endured a full trophy-less season as a manager. At any club. Ever.

In recent times Chelsea have become the undisputed kings of cup football. FA Cup triumphs in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012 can be added to Champions League success in 2012 and a Europa League triumph the following year. This year, you can add to  the equation Mourinho's relentless desire to win every single football match he's involved in and it probably makes Chelsea favourites for the competition outright. In the past few weeks they've looked strong again, showing some of the old muscle of the Special One's first reign to see off opponents ac close out games. The Blues will be a force to be reckoned with come the later stages. Expect them to return to Wembley in April at the very least.

The case for Liverpool

Liverpool are in the later stages of a rebuilding phase. Brendan Rodgers, to his utmost credit, has done a fantastic job recently making them a credible force challenging near the summit of the table. He will need to deliver trophies soon, a club like Liverpool will always demand so, but the need is not as urgent as it is at Arsenal for instance. Liverpool did win a trophy as recently as 2012 and like the Arsenal in recent seasons, finishing 4th in the Premier League would be seen as a trophy in its own right.

What will play in their favour over the coming months is their lack of European football as a distraction. It has worked in their favour so far in the league, having midweek off to prepare for European games while the rest of the Premier League's elite have travelled across the continent and often slipped up on their return. Liverpool will have no such travails over the second half of the season so will not feel the need to rotate their (relatively thin) squad as much. They'll be very difficult to beat. Had they had a bit more luck they'd have gotten results from both City and Chelsea over Christmas. On their day, they could beat anyone and that's what cup football comes down to at the end of the day.

The case for Man City

The best team in the country right now with undoubtedly the strongest squad, Manchester City are rightly considered by the bookies to be the most likely team to lift the FA Cup this year.

But will they? I don't think so. At the moment they look like the Premier League and Champions League take priority over everything else. They have reached the semi-finals of the League Cup without breaking a sweat and should everything go to plan, will have a trophy in the bag by the start of March. The Champions League and Barcelona will by then be moving to the forefront of the Manuel Pellegrini's mind along with maintaining pace in the league. Honestly, I don't think City will be too bothered with the FA Cup this year. Their strength in depth may carry them a few rounds in but don't expect them to field their strongest side at any point in the cup over the coming months.

The case for everyone else

The FA Cup need not necessarily be won by won by one of the Premier League's top sides. Look at last year when relegated Wigan took the trophy, or 2008 when Portsmouth, now sixth from bottom of the football league, beat Cardiff at Wembley. Of sides outside the five mentioned above, Tottenham and Everton are probably the most noteworthy contenders. Tottenham's chances may be slim owing to the fact that they've been handed a trip to local rivals Arsenal in the third round, a tie I just can't see them winning. Everton have a somewhat easier tie against Championship high fliers QPR. I feel that progress in this competition for them will play a clear second fiddle to their Champions League push and however many games they do face in this competition will merely be a chance for Roberto Martinez to rotate his squad. Although he did win the competition last year with Wigan, I don't think a repeat triumph is a priority for him now.

Martinez's Wigan sprung a huge surprise in 2013

As always, a surprise package can and often does emerge. 59 other teams remain in the competition and each one has the potential to cause an upset. The competition is famous for them. In 2008 who would have predicted the semi-final line-up on Cardiff, West Brom, Portsmouth and Barnsley, three of whom were outside the Premier League at the time. The competition does retain its magic and third round weekend, the first one of January is often when it is at its most potent.

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