It’s one of those ties upon which the competition has built its reputation around the world down the years. Viewers will watch as Liverpool’s Premier League stars step foot into the other St James’ Park ground, the tight and ramshackle Devon version rather than the cathedral on the hill in Newcastle.
Yet the reality is that this is a match Liverpool could probably do without. It’s a third away game in seven days and they lost FOUR players to injury in Tuesday’s Capital One Cup tie at Stoke City. Manager Jurgen Klopp has already intimated that he will be forced to play untried youngsters. And there is a strong chance that the German’s decision will be matched by every other Premier League team and a good number in the Championship.
With a round of midweek league matches to follow in both the top two divisions, all managers will be contemplating using the fringe players and youngsters in their squads. Isn’t this why they plead with Chairmen to be allowed to have deep squads anyway?
This is supposed to be the weekend when the FA Cup takes the headlines. But it feels sandwiched in between the latest events of the Premier League soap opera.
League Two Wycombe might beat Aston Villa. Stoke City might succumb away at League One Doncaster. But they would be forgotten about in a few days’ time, not remembered forever like Hereford beating Newcastle or Wrexham gunning down Arsenal. Ronnie Radford and Mickey Thomas immediately spring to mind, but can anyone name the goalscorers for Bradford City last season when they won at Chelsea?
The FA Cup has even played second fiddle to the much-derided League Cup in the build-up. For the four clubs involved in this week’s semi-finals and with the second leg of those games to come later this month, they now have to focus on starting in the last 64 of another cup.
Inevitably, we will hear the old clichés about David versus Goliath and famous FA Cup giantkillings, but the Premier League has provided plenty of upsets all season. The FA Cup is supposed to bring the unpredictable and romantic element to the football calendar. But how do you account for Bournemouth beating Chelsea, Norwich winning at Manchester United and Watford trouncing Liverpool? None of those results were expected. In each game, one of the mighty beasts of English football was slain by a club with infinitely fewer resources and gave the neutrals a heart-warming story.
When the league is so topsy-turvy, another cup feels squeezed into the periphery.
With only one non-league club having reached the third round, Conference side Eastleigh carry the hopes of those outside the professional game of mixing it with the big boys. But they didn’t land a Premier League tie in the draw and so their match against the Championship’s bottom team, Bolton, has been ignored by the TV companies.
Instead we have Manchester United and Chelsea at home to League One clubs in Sheffield United and Scunthorpe United. Having missed Jose Mourinho’s men being dumped out by Bradford 12 months ago, there was obviously a fear of missing out again. While every one of United’s FA Cup matches has been live on television since they drew 0-0 at home to then non-league Exeter in 2005. So there was never any chance of their game against the Blades not being selected, although there is the possibility of more misery for United manager Louis van Gaal. Could his team do the unthinkable and draw 0-0 at home in a fourth different competition this season? Unlikely, but certainly not unmissable.
One of the problems for the FA Cup this weekend is that the draw has not thrown up any heavyweight encounters. In the last few years, we’ve had a Manchester derby and a North London derby at this stage to add spice along with any upsets. This time, there is fourth versus second from the Premier League, but Tottenham’s clash with Leicester on Sunday will be diluted by the fact they meet again at White Hart Lane in the league three days later. Cup glory would be lovely for both sides, but Mauricio Pochettino and Claudio Ranieri know that opportunity knocks in the Premier League this season and so Wednesday’s fixture will carry the greater weight.
This may seem unlikely having read all of the above but I’m still a fan of the FA Cup and can remember cup finals from when I was a young lad. I’ve only missed one in the last 25 years, and that was for genuine footballing reasons. But the competition is being squeezed on all sides. Premier League riches and the plethora of football on offer to TV viewers means the FA Cup is losing its identity as something special and different. And we must hope that the increased money on offer in the Premier League next year doesn’t result in the famous old cup becoming even more of an irrelevance than it seems today.