John Dykes assesses the FA Cup semi-finalists and reckons Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United have the best chance of glory.
The FA Cup takes centre stage in English football this weekend and for three of the clubs involved, it offers an opportunity to make up for not winning the league title. In fact, with Manchester City winning the Premier League and the EFL Cup and Liverpool and Arsenal the only English clubs still alive in European competition, this is the last chance to win silverware for the trio in question.
Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur meet at Wembley on Saturday, while Chelsea take on Southampton on Sunday. The Saints are struggling to avoid relegation from the Premier League, so the Cup may be an unwelcome distraction from their survival bid. An unlikely Southampton Cup win would be bittersweet at best, no matter how anyone spins the “romance of the Cup” angle.
So, who needs to win the Cup the most? United are on course for a second-place Premier League finish, with the most league points in a league season since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. They will play Champions League football again next season and presumably will do so with an enhanced squad after another summer of lavish spending. Even if they don’t win the Cup, it has been a season of improvement, no matter what Jose Mourinho’s critics say, and victory at Wembley in May would make it a strong season.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 19, 2018
Tottenham Hotspur may not repeat last season’s second-place finish but they should hold their nerve and hold off Chelsea, meaning a place in the top four is a good enough return this season, given the financial demands of their new stadium. Spurs fans, and neutrals, probably feel they could have gone further in the Champions League, so a Cup win would go a long way towards making up for that by way of further battle-hardening Mauricio Pochettino’s young squad.
It would also be a piece of silverware to go with all the potential Spurs have shown in recent seasons. However, after Tuesday’s Premier League draw at Brighton, Pochettino came out and said the FA Cup semi-final will not define Spurs’ season.
He said: “If you win the FA Cup, you are not going to play in the Champions League next season. You are only going to play in the Champions League if you finish in the top four.”
That tells you all you need to know about Spurs’ priorities.
So, that leaves us with Chelsea. It’s tempting to say the deposed league champions desperately need to win the Cup but the truth is that even if they do, this has been a terrible season. Their title defence has been miserable, undermined by constant allegations from manager Antonio Conte that the club lacks ambition. Chelsea will almost certainly miss out on the Champions League, strengthening the suspicion that this will be the end of Conte’s spell at Stamford Bridge.
— Pedro Rodríguez (@_Pedro17_) April 19, 2018
Against this backdrop, I suspect it may be hard for Chelsea’s players to truly “get up for” a Wembley final, should they progress this weekend. I suspect they will end this campaign empty handed and the Cup will go to either Spurs or United.
So, of the remaining clubs who aren’t Premier League champions Manchester City, in the “Big Six”, that leaves just Liverpool and Arsenal. No FA Cup to play for but they have European ambitions.
Arsenal’s campaign has been a truly wretched one, their lack of competitiveness on the road symptomatic of a malaise in the dressing room that needs urgent attention. Ordinarily, I’d suggest that even a trophy at the end of the season would not be enough to make up for finishing as many as 40 points off the champions. However, the carrot dangled by the Europa League is of course Champions League qualification. Gunners legend Robert Pires told me this week that if Arsenal can “do a United” and follow the path they took last season, it would change everything. He’s absolutely right.
Arsenal though are not expected to get past Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals and that would leave them reflecting on a dismal campaign come season’s end.
Liverpool could yet lift another European Cup. There is every chance of it happening. Yet even without that, a top four finish, plus the feeling that they seem best-equipped to challenge mighty City, and the quality of their Champions League run all add up as reasons to label this season a success for Jurgen Klopp and his club.
Enjoy the FA Cup semi-finals this weekend (they’re traditionally my favourite games of any domestic season), but don’t think they will totally define the 2017/18 campaigns of the clubs involved. It’s all part of a bigger picture and that canvas is now almost complete.