Over recent years there has been much written about the waning importance of the FA Cup as a competition, and in particular a disconnect between many top flight fans and their clubs who have demonstrably favoured the Premier League in terms of their priorities.
For the clubs,this in understandable enough. At a financial level the FA Cup winners this year will receive prize money of £1.8m equivalent to the sum awarded for finishing bottom in the Premier League, where the winners receive £38m and each position higher than 20th receives several million more than the place below.
Against this, for sides unlikely to finish in the Premier League top six the FA Cup winners enter the Europa League at the group stage which might not be the carrot European football once was but is a carrot nonetheless. Or so you would think.
During the last several seasons fighting my growing urge to say “the FA Cup is not a bettable medium anymore, there are too many unpredictable variables if you include team motivation, rotation and priorities” I alighted on an ante-post plan that went as follows
- Sides who might finish in the top six of the Premier League have other priorities
- Sides who might get relegated have other priorities
- However sides who can’t make Europe via the league and can’t go down should really take the FA Cup seriously and have a real go. Some nice draws and the 33/1 will look handy indeed.
Then each season I would watch as sides like Southampton from a couple of seasons ago (not that I hold much of a grudge) pick a squad XI for third round matches and limply exit the competition.
Even this season, I watched my own club Leicester City (who can’t go down and won’t finish top six) change eight players from Saturday to Tuesday for a League Cup quarter-final and proceed to lose on penalties against a second XI from a top six side. Just as well I didn’t fancy a trip to Wembley then.
However that game against Manchester City before Xmas was the moment another light bulb came on (apologies in advance) as I watched Zinkovic, Foden, Diaz, Adarabioyo and others knock it around for Man C. Of course the spending by the top six, Manchester clubs especially, in transfer windows has given top six sides two or sometimes three players per position and it is no longer sufficient to say “Top Six team x will rotate at Championship team y and will be vulnerable” The fact is that the second choice teams in their own right would finish in the top 14 of the Premier League. We don’t even have the perennial fallback of cup upsets caused by conditions might be unsuitable. These days almost every side plays on decent pitches.
We only need to look at recent FA Cup Winners. In the last decade there is one outlier, Wigan, but the remainder of the winners is a roll call of the big boys (Chelsea x 3,Arsenal x3,City,United). Teams like Palace, Villa, Hull, Stoke and Portsmouth have though made finals.
So this year instead of concentrating on a “they really should be taking this competition seriously” list which in my head this season was Leicester, Burnley and Everton (can’t reach top six, won’t go down), two of which are drawn away at top six sides anyway I thought I would find an angle for the top six sides, and to me that angle is the Champions League.
Five English teams made the last 16 of the Champions League. Furthermore Arsenal have made the last 32 Europa League and, maybe unlikely, but winning that competition is a route back into the Champions League that the Premier League might not provide them this year.
Of the Champions League clubs the draw was kind to City (Basel) not too bad for United and Liverpool (Porto and Sevilla), and tough on Tottenham (Juventus) and Chelsea (Barcelona).Ties are played in mid February, the midweek before and after the FA Cup fifth round.
Manchester City will be fighting on four fronts come February and for Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham finishing in the Premier League top four is going to be a tight battle. When push comes to shove in February/March, we could see them select very young teams indeed selected in the middle rounds of the FA Cup.
That leaves Manchester United and Chelsea, where finishing outside the top four in the Premier League is unlikely. United should be more confident of progressing in the Champions League than Chelsea, who come the end of February could be left with the prospect of trying to finish second in the league and win the FA Cup, possibly after a Carabao Cup final. Of the top six sides it is they, with more depth than the squad had earlier in the season, that feel should be going deep in this year’s FA Cup
Of course it is January and there is the inevitable variance of the cup draws during each round.
Prices at the head of the market are
Manchester City 4/1
Manchester United 6/1
Chelsea to win the FA Cup 6/1 Bet365,William Hill,Betfred