Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Slaying the Giant-Killers

FOREST'S WIN OVER ARSENAL AND OTHER 3RD ROUND MIASMAS


Another Third Round Saturday and another unappetising serving of false shocks and watered-down lineups.

Where are the soccer gods when you need them to save the game's oldest competition and revive its famous magic?

Arsene Wenger dominated the headlines again with another hapless setback but within a day the fuss over Arsenal's humiliating 4-2 loss to Nottingham Forest had died down, such is the diminution of the Cup and the Gunners' chronic failure syndrome under the Frenchman.

In a fan's perfect world, F.A. Cup holders should fight tooth and nail to hold on to their precious crown, not relinquish it by fielding a second eleven against a mediocre team with a caretaker manager in the lower half of the old second division.

Wenger's excuse of needing to save his stars for this Wednesday's League Cup semi-final with Chelsea sounded much like Mark Hughes' famous last words for Stoke last week: Resting his best players away to Chelsea in the hope of beating Newcastle at home resulted in him losing both matches and getting his P45 to boot.

To be fair, the punishing Christmas/New Year schedule is an annual insanity which no sane professional sport should entertain, especially in a World Cup year.

For Arsenal, a task-list of five games over two weeks in icy weather demands an extensive squad of the quality required to make an assault on the Champions League places.

On this evidence Arsenal just do not have that, which makes their end of season goal of reaching the top four already look like a lost cause in January.

Sure, they might win the League Cup and make the Europa League again, but London's biggest club must have higher ambitions than secondary tournaments.

The only alternative route to the Champions League is by winning the Europa League but Arsenal are still nine games away from that conquest, with clubs like Serie A leaders Napoli, Atletico Madrid (second in La Liga) and Borussia Dortmund (third in the Bundesliga) to overcome first.

If the economist Wenger had calculated he had more chance of winning the League Cup or Europa League than the F.A. Cup then his educated guess backfired badly, yet rest assured had he beaten Forest he would have fielded another lacklustre lineup in the next round  - a case of gambler's conceit.

Tonight's clash with Chelsea now takes on more of a must-win nature for Arsenal, or else the pressure on their coach from the press, which was intense in the second half of last season, will surely return. Later this month before the transfer window shuts they could lose talisman Alexis Sanchez and fail to land a replacement like Monaco's Thomas Lemar in time.

Arsenal fans are increasingly weary of the lack of boardroom action to halt the ongoing regression from the heady days of Thierry Henry, the Invincibles and the 2006 Champions League final, especially as derby rivals Tottenham are so effervescent under Mauricio Pochettino. 

If Wenger guides the Gunners to yet another flaccid season of no major signings and nothing better than Europa League qualification, it is hard to see how he can remain at the helm. Five points adrift of the Champions League places, the gloom over Highbury persists and a last-gasp sweetener like last season's F.A. Cup final cannot be guaranteed.

Yet whisper it - Forest had also made changes to their starting eleven on Sunday, albeit not as many as Arsenal. For the twice champions of Europe the league is also the priority this season, firstly by avoiding relegation to the third tier and secondly by making a run for the playoffs and possible ascension to the Premier League, where many feel they still belong.

Forest dream of a steady ship more than any flash in the pan cup win. They have employed 16 different managers in eight years - an extraordinarily unstable spell in the history of a club who kept just one manager (Brian Clough) between 1975 and 1993, an outstanding one of course.

Caretaker Gary Brazil did not react as expected to the 'Cup shock' the commentators were insisting was ensuing, merely smiling ruefully as his side scored four impressive goals, well aware that more meaningful battles lie ahead.

The media do their best to insist 'The Magic of the Cup' lives on and that it is far from a sideshow, but try as I might I could not bring myself to anything like elation as my side beat higher league opposition.

If the press did not talk up their product they would in effect be betraying their raison d'etre, so journalists inhabit a bizarre middle-earth where they pretend there is something to get excited about, when most can see the emperor has lost his clothes.

A couple of years ago Fleet Street slated the then Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal, a notoriously obstinate character at the best of times, when he failed to acknowledge the special character of the F.A. Cup, a trophy he went on to capture.

When urged at a press conference before the semi-final to supply the quotes the reporters wanted for the articles they had already planned, he replied disinterested, to the chagrin of the frustrated hacks  who as ever had arrived with agendas to fulfil.

But as coach of a club as big as United, whose ambitions extend beyond the F.A. Cup, as well as a headstrong man who had grown up in another football culture and managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands, he was only being himself and should have been respected for that.

Absurdly, journalists still ask managers during cup runs if the league remains the priority when it obviously does, given the riches to be won or lost by promotion, relegation or European qualification.

The thing is the F.A. Cup used to be as big a prize as the first division, hence the Charity (now F.A. Community) Shield showdown as the new season's curtain-raiser. It is hard to explain to the younger generation why, but it was. So when hacks ask that silly question about priorities, they are in effect channelling the spirit of the Cup, but that is all it is now, a mere ghost.

So the City Ground, murmuring with the memories of 'Old Big 'Ead' Clough, lit up for a brief and fiery flicker amid an inescapably grey backdrop of two storied clubs who were in painful reality pale shadows of their former selves. And that was the highlight of the third round.

There were other stories of note, not least a pair of minnows from League Two, the old fourth division, eliminating higher-ranked opposition: Newport County, one of those 'survivor clubs' we all want to do well when they appear in the media this time of year, beat Leeds and will now feel excited to host Tottenham, while Yeovil Town's reward for defeating Bradford City is a home tie with Manchester United.

Far be it from me to engage in conspiracy theories but it almost felt like the gods guided Rio Ferdinand's shuffling hand in the bag to bestow riches on half of the remaining lowest-ranked sides.

Plum draws they appear, but rest assured Jose Mourinho and Pochettino will ring the changes to their starting lineups, diminishing the David v Goliath billing and reducing the chances of what can legitimately be called an upset.

Last season's F.A. Cup concluded with an entertaining clash between two Premier League giants fitting of a finale, but the famous magic of the Cup evaporated into the ether some time ago.

European football cannot take all the blame because the world's oldest football competition, so special it is the only one referred to as 'The Cup', retained its prestige throughout the heyday of England's domination of the UEFA Champions Cup.

The malaise began in the early 1990s with the rise of satellite television. Previously the nation had no more than three or four television channels to choose from so congregated around annual marquee events like the F.A. Cup Final.

The creation of the Premier League in 1993, based on Sky TV's high-octane cash injection, was soon mirrored by the birth and inflated marketing of the UEFA Champions League, leaving domestic knock-out competitions without such broadcasting revenue unable to keep up.

Next, the arrival in England of overseas coaches unversed in the unique tradition of the Football Association Challenge Cup saw weakened elevens selected, a pattern now so commonplace that when a big teams's manager fields his strongest eleven for a cup tie he is interrogated over his logic.

And suspect No.1 in the instigation and propagation of this crime against football tradition: A certain Mr. Wenger of Arsenal F.C.

Maybe the soccer gods were smiling over the City Ground.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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