LONDON – It’s Chelsea for the F.A. Cup.
A season that has been littered with controversy and failure could end in success with interim manager Guus Hiddink leading the Blues to a second F.A. Cup triumph.
The days when the competition was sprinkled with stardust have long gone, certainly for Premier League clubs. English football cries out for a winter break and the F.A. Cup third round represents a chance for around half of the Premier League’s regulars to have a rest.
If Doncaster beats Stoke, Dagenham & Redbridge wins at Everton or Oxford defeats Swansea it will be an unforgettable occasion for the Davids of the Football League. But if English football’s 20 elite clubs go out of the domestic game’s oldest knockout competition, it will be greeted by little more than a shrug of the shoulders.
The Premier League is so all-consuming and so incredibly lucrative that defeat in the F.A. Cup is a minor irritant. Those clubs pushing for the title or a Champions League place will be reluctant to risk their big guns this weekend. For the bottom half of the league, survival has never been so crucial — the new TV deal from next season guarantees each top division club almost £100 million, which is why their managers will select their cup teams with one eye on the next league match.
The F.A. Cup is long on history but comparatively short on money, yet for Chelsea it is the only realistic chance (assuming it won’t win the Champions League) of silverware.
When Hiddink was interim manager in 2009 following the sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea beat Everton 2-1 in the F.A. Cup final, and in the short time he has been back at Stamford Bridge there has been a marked improvement in the Blues’ results and confidence.
What this says about Jose Mourinho is open to debate, but the players are clearly relishing the attacking style favored by the Dutchman without being bogged down with the pragmatic, defense-heavy approach of the Portuguese.
In the 3-0 win at Crystal Palace last Sunday, Chelsea once again looked like Chelsea the champion rather than Chelsea the relegation battler.
The movement and passing at Selhurst Park was a joy to watch, two of the best players being Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, whose form suffered most under Mourinho this season. The mood at the training ground is said to be a lot less tense these days and while three games without defeat under Hiddink is hardly cause for celebration, the signs are that Chelsea’s miserable form under Mourinho is a thing of the past.
The reintroduction of John Obi Mikel to the midfield has given Chelsea a stronger base for Fabregas and Oscar to display their attacking flair, with Costa scoring three times in his last two games.
Chelsea will not be relegated, while even a top-four finish seems beyond it. It starts the F.A. Cup campaign against Scunthorpe, which is 15th in League One, which should be a formality even if the same was said about the visit of Bradford City a year ago when Chelsea lost 4-2.
The suspicion is that Hiddink will not field shadow teams in the competition as most Premier League managers will, not least Sam Allardyce of relegation-threatened Sunderland. The Black Cats have played four games in 15 days during the festive period and now face three away matches in seven days.
Allardyce said: “Of course I’m going to make changes for our cup tie at Arsenal on Saturday. If the Premier League decides to put a stupid fixture midweek when they don’t need to, then I haven’t got much choice. It’s diabolical. We’re flogging the lads. There are more and more injuries every year, but it’s completely ignored by the Premier League. It’s unbelievable.
“If you want us to respect the F.A. Cup, don’t put Premier League fixtures in the midweek just after New Year. Don’t give me stick when I change the side at Arsenal. Give the Premier League stick, not the managers.”
It is inevitable that F.A. Cup replays (only the semifinals are decided in one match) will be abandoned to ease the load on a crowded fixture list. The problem is the F.A. Cup is run by the Football Association, while the Premier League runs its competition and each is concerned only with its own interests.
In the meantime, we shall see the priorities of clubs as the team sheets are announced for this weekend’s ties.
Not likely: Gareth Bale, we are told for the umpteenth time, is a target for Manchester United. The latest reason is because the Wales international is upset that Rafa Benitez was sacked by Real Madrid.
First of all, players tend not to consider their future if a manager they like is shown the door — at the Bernabeu it is a revolving door. Bale has never given the slightest hint he wants to leave Real and Benitez’s successor, Zinedine Zidane, said the forward, who is playing extremely well, is an integral part of the team.
Should Real decide to sell Bale — and we are in the land of hypothesis now — then president Florentino Perez, who has always rejected the idea of losing Bale, would probably want a fee in the region of £120 million. Then there are Bale’s wages of around £300,000 a week.
Can anyone seriously see United, or any club, coughing up that sort of cash?
World football’s superstars would cost so much, and need to be paid a king’s ransom, that they are almost priced out of the market.
No kidding: Crewe manager Steve Davis launched an early entry for the best excuse of the year after his side’s 5-0 home defeat by Coventry: “If you take the goals away, there wasn’t much between the teams. We made five mistakes and we were punished.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.