Offside, 20 January

FA Cup shock: some commentators think it still matters.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Your regular host is not available. Having had one of his spiked columns referred to by Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s University Challenge this week, he’s probably talking to his agent about getting a big money glamour move to Sky Sports.

Talking of getting ideas above your station, Exeter actually managed to give Man United a run for their money last night, despite being 95 places below United in the football pecking order. Okay, it was 2-0, and nobody really thought the result was in doubt once Ronaldo scored after nine minutes, but it was a decent match nonetheless. Exeter really should have scored. And United should have scored about 10.

A night of huffing and puffing in the Devon mud might have made a decent alternative to Coronation Street (what wouldn’t?), but ultimately, avoiding the potential humiliation of losing to a bunch of nobodies probably mattered more to the Premiership thoroughbreds than the Cup itself.

This was exemplified on Tuesday night by Liverpool’s exit from the competition at Burnley. As a ‘Pool fan, I have to say that while losing to United and Chelsea recently put me in a bad mood for an hour or two, losing to lower-league Burnley raised only the merest shrug of the shoulder.

That’s because the team that lost to Burnley bore only a passing resemblance to the Liverpool first team. It was manned by fringe players and out-and-out reserves I’ve only vaguely heard of. But even ‘only vaguely heard of’ is stretching it for one David Raven, who I can only assume they picked up at a bus-stop on the way, promising him a lift home if he’d play right-back for the evening.

We even scored Burnley’s winner for them, our useless French lump Djimi Traore obviously deciding to practice that fancy turn he’d learned at the Brazilian Soccer School while only three yards from his own goal. No surprise to see it dribbling over the line when he made a mess of it.

The press criticised Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez for picking such a feeble side. ‘That won’t go down well with the fans who still treasure the FA Cup’ they all wrote. Which fans would they be, then?

For the benefit of the hacks, a quick reminder that the football list of priorities goes something like this:

  1. Champions League
  2. Premiership
  3. Champions League final
  4. Premiership runners-up
  5. Qualifying for next year’s Champions League
  6. Champions League semis
  7. Keeping your only decent player (eg, Liverpool and Steven Gerrard)
  8. FA Cup (aka ‘The Cup’)
  9. League Cup (aka the Carling/Worthington/Coca-Cola/Milk Cup, depending on who’s paying the bills)
  10. Qualifying for Europe in any shape or form (Fair Play league will do)
  11. Not getting relegated

Benitez knows he can’t win the Premiership this season now that Chelsea are a distant blue dot on the horizon. He also knows that, having got to the last 16 in the Champions League, that it’s now a cup competition and the team might just stumble into the semi-final, allowing them to pretend for a bit longer that they are giants of European football. And not getting at least fourth in the league, in order to qualify for the Champions League next season, might cost him his job.

And since half his team have either still got, or have recently had, broken bones, he’s not going to risk his best players on an ‘orrible night in Burnley. Which any thinking Liverpool fan would agree with. So he risked fielding a crap team and got beat. C’est la vie.

The Cup might still have a bit of magic, in the sense that the rest of the country can get behind Exeter for the evening in the hope that they embarrass United. But that’s not kudos, that’s schadenfreude. Anything to see Fergie’s face go a few shades redder, or to be able to imagine the United players getting the ol’ hairdryer, gale force, in the dressing room after the match.

But that doesn’t mean the Cup really matters. It’s a handy means to cover your embarrassment when you have a below-par season and you want to be able to show that you’ve won something, like United last season. Even the League Cup will do, as Liverpool demonstrated the season before. But the domestic cups are low down on the big teams’ priorities these days. Cups are for the likes of Middlesbrough, who’d never won anything until they scraped to victory in the League Cup last season.

The big teams are now looking to Europe for the cash and the glory. So it was that the ‘Pool were pretty damned pleased when Steven Gerrard hammered in the crucial third against Olympiakos a few weeks ago (especially as it gave him a reason to stay at the club for a little while longer). A proper turn-up for the books these days is not a small team beating a bigger team in a domestic cup, although that’s still pretty rare. A real surprise was watching relatively unfashionable Porto winning the Champions League last year.

Liverpool losing to Burnley was not a big surprise. Liverpool, four-times European Cup winners, winning the Champions League this season? That would be absolutely gobsmacking.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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Topics Politics


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