Lose The Final, Lose Your Pre-Season...

It will be all about the trophy for either Chelsea or Liverpool on Saturday but the losers will rue defeat again if they're playing Europa League football on August 2...

Last Updated: 03/05/12 at 11:01 Post Comment

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As responses to losing 4-0 at Wigan go, Newcastle's 2-0 Papiss Cisse-inspired victory at Chelsea takes some beating. Meanwhile Harry Redknapp, the poor lamb, will feel a little better after the 4-1 win at Bolton preserved their fourth-place standing, and so will those bleating about a) his England rejection and/or b) the FA's failure to reject him earlier. As well as ensuring a fraught battle for third and fourth, Wednesday night's Premier League results also had implications for what is at stake at Wembley on Saturday.

The FA Cup final is about glory, he says, reading from a script decades old but in which he still believes. When John Terry or Steven Gerrard lifts the trophy on Saturday evening they will be taking part in a tradition that dates back to 1872, one that set in train all the other titles which they and other footballers have ever contested. Try telling anyone inside Wembley, joyous in victory or disconsolate in defeat, that it does not matter. The competition is weakened by the financial rewards of the Premier League and the Champions League but you wouldn't believe an Evertonian or a Tottenham fan saying that they are pleased to be in league action on Sunday instead of back at Wembley the previous teatime, whatever finish the latter may achieve in the table.

Still, Saturday's game is not just about Saturday. The cup final's result will have ramifications for next season, something that was first the case for Wolves with the introduction of the European Cup Winners' Cup (deceased) in 1960-61. It would be preferable if the FA a few years back had tried to persuade UEFA that our cup winners should take up a Champions League place, but a Europa League slot will have to suffice.

You may point out that Liverpool and Chelsea have already qualified for that competition for next season, the Reds through the Carling Cup and the Blues via a minimum sixth-place finish, with the latter hoping to retain their place in the Champions League by winning the final against Bayern in Munich on May 19. But unlike the old days there is qualification and then there is qualifying.

If Liverpool have to rely on their penalties victory against Cardiff then they will be playing in the Europa League's third qualifying round on August 2 and 9 - in the middle of the Olympics - and hoping to make the play-offs on the 23rd and 30th. If the Reds complete a cup double, though, then they will have a bye into the group stages. These calculations are reliant on UEFA sticking by the existing access list, but that is highly likely.

Chelsea could just still finish third or fourth but if they complete a losing cup double and qualify for Europe as the Premier League's sixth team, then it is they who will have to face those aggravatingly timed knock-out games.

If Liverpool win at Wembley and Chelsea win the big one in Munich or achieve a domestic miracle then one team qualifying via the Premier League will be in the play-off, another in the third qualifying round. Otherwise, one of the cup finalists will face a badly disrupted pre-season, with the need to be at competitive level a fortnight earlier than their domestic rivals.

No manager will want to have an early-season embarrassment on their record. The Europa League lacks a degree of glamour but if you have a modern-sized squad then you need competitions in which to rotate and the larger the club, the more you make simply by staging matches.

Winning the cup is all about glory but if you lose the final you would rather forget about it. There is a decent chance that Saturday's runners-up will be reminded about it through every step of a premature pre-season and via matches they would really, really wish to do without.

Philip Cornwall

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