The FA Cup third round this weekend will see the introduction of the Premier League sides and the return of the now annual discussion of how to bring the magic back to the world’s oldest cup competition. The truth is that the FA Cup will never be what it once was, when it was the only live match of the season on the television and ranked alongside the league title as the most prestigious honor available. The money and recognition on offer from Europe’s Champions League has seen to that.
But for two of England’s giants, Manchester United and Chelsea, the FA Cup could be significantly more important than either would have envisioned at the start of the season.
For Chelsea, their hopes of retaining their Premier League title and even reaching the Champions League have gone, meaning that they can now afford to realign their priorities. And they now have a manager who knows all about winning the FA Cup as a means of salvaging an otherwise disappointing season. Following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho last month, Guus Hiddink was put in interim charge for the second time, having filled the same role in 2009 when he led Chelsea to the FA Cup crown with a victory over Everton in the final.
With Chelsea not resuming their Champions League campaign for another six weeks and having eased their always-distant relegation worries, he will surely be eyeing a similar outcome in May. Hiddink's talent-rich squad appears poised to make a legitimate run.
On Sunday, the Blues produced arguably their best performance of the season when swatting aside high-flying Crystal Palace, 3-0. With players like Oscar and Cesc Fabregas seemingly rediscovering some of their sparkle, Chelsea have the potential to be a match for any team they might be drawn against in the FA Cup. They will expect to have little trouble overcoming their first hurdle, when taking on League One side Scunthorpe United at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Manchester United will also be taking on third-tier opposition at the weekend, with Sheffield United due to visit Old Trafford. Yet in truth they can hardly expect to have an easy ride against any opponents right now, given that they have only won one of their last 16 games by more than a single goal.
And for Manchester United the role of the FA Cup in their season is less clear cut. Despite ending an eight-match winless streak against Swansea City on Saturday, manager Louis van Gaal remains under real pressure. He will doubtless be well aware that whether he should continue in his role will be judged primarily on the team’s performance in the Premier League and attaining the minimum objective of securing a place in the Champions League.
Yet having already been eliminated from the Champions League, Van Gaal could buy himself some favor in the board room and in the Old Trafford stands with a deep run in the FA Cup. It was a competition that the veteran Dutch coach treated seriously last year, when he fielded strong lineups against Cambridge United and Preston North End before exiting limply in the quarterfinals to Arsenal.
This time around there may be less of a threat from those top teams. Arsenal and Manchester City are fighting it out for the title and still in the Champions League, Liverpool are still in the semifinals of the Capital One Cup and in the knockout phase of the Europa League, while Tottenham are eyeing a surprise Premier League title challenge. The door could be ajar then for both Manchester United and Chelsea to ensure that troubled seasons climax with a joyous celebration at Wembley in May.