LONDON: How much the FA Cup still matters is a much discussed topic of conversation among English football fans.
It is a subject brought into even sharper focus at this time of year when the world’s oldest senior knockout football tournament reaches the third round stage, the point when teams from England’s top two divisions enter the event.
Conventional wisdom has it that the FA Cup has now lost much of its lustre.
The advent of the Champions League concentrates the minds of sides at the top of the English Premier League, whose domestic focus is on winning the league title or at least finishing in the top four to guarantee themselves a place in European club football’s elite competition.
Meanwhile teams near the bottom of the Premier League are so concerned about being relegated from the lucrative top flight, they will often rest their best players from Cup ties in a bid to keep them fit for league matches instead.
And yet despite these changes in attitude the so-called ‘Big Four’ of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have, with the exception of Portsmouth’s 2008 triumph, monopolised the FA Cup between them since 1996.
Today’s tie between record 11-times winners Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford promises to be a good guide to the FA Cup’s current standing.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has often fielded under-strength teams in the FA Cup in recent years.
Following their 5-0 thrashing of Wigan on Wednesday, the English champions are now just two points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea as they chase an unprecedented fourth successive title.
There is also the matter of their upcoming Champions League tie against Italian giants AC Milan.
Last season, Ferguson fielded a near reserve side in the FA Cup semi-finals and paid the price when United were beaten by Everton.
But the intriguing, or depressing depending on your point of view is that Leeds, who beat United in a gruelling 1970 FA Cup semi-final that featured two goalless draws before a solitary goal from late Scotland great Billy Bremner settled the tie, might not be at full-strength either.
Fallen giants Leeds are eight points clear at the top of League One, English football’s third tier, and manager Simon Grayson, speaking after the draw, said: “It’s the league that counts…Promotion is the priority here and everybody knows that.”
Current holders Chelsea face Watford in a repeat of the other 1970 semi-final.
Arsenal face West Ham today, reviving memories of the 1980 final when the Hammers became the last team from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup.
The Gunners make the trip across London with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger insisting he is ready to sacrifice the club’s FA Cup hopes to keep their Premier League title challenge on course. Wenger, whose side are just four points off top spot, has won the FA Cup four times in his 13 years with Arsenal.
But the Frenchman said: “The Premier League is always more important than the FA Cup. The Premier League is so hard that you want to take care of your position.”
But for Liverpool, away to second division Championship side Reading yesterday, the FA Cup offers a last chance to salvage some silverware from what has already been a disappointing season that has seen the Merseysiders fail to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
“It’s always been important but you know that when you’re out of the Champions League, the people think about silverware and the FA Cup is very, very important for us,” said Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.
Meanwhile neutral fans seeking a Cup upset could do worse than turn their attention towards the south coast where cash-strapped Portsmouth are at home to Championship team Coventry, the 1987 FA Cup winners. — AFP