Even David Moyes won a trophy. It was a one-round competition against Championship Wigan, only reached due to the Premier League success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, but David Moyes lifted silverware while manager of Manchester United; Louis van Gaal has not.
Going by the Dutchman’s own barometer of success, the semi-finals is the absolute minimum United must achieve this season. “When you see the facts we went further in the Capital One Cup,” Van Gaal said in his own defence just last month. Where a second-round defeat in 2014 became a third-round exit in 2015 in England’s ugly duckling of a tournament, United must now better their quarter-final loss to Arsenal in their last FA Cup campaign. It’s only fair.
With a Premier League title possible but highly unlikely, and the Europa League a slog, the FA Cup may represent Van Gaal’s only chance of a trophy during his time at Old Trafford. Reports are rife that his tenure at the club could end in the summer. Even if he continues until the expiration of his deal – one more season at the helm – it’s difficult to envisage a trophy as forthcoming. This is a boss who priorities league over cup, winning one KNVB Cup, one Copa del Rey and one DFB-Pokal in 24 years as a manager. But as proud as Van Gaal is, he will desperately want something to show for what will likely be his last job – at club level at least.
That quarter-final defeat to the Gunners back in March precipitated a 12th FA Cup victory for Arsene Wenger’s side two months later. They edged one ahead of United as a result, becoming the competition’s most successful club. United last won the trophy in 2004, and having not won anything since 2013, this is their longest barren spell in 27 years. Plus, Wayne Rooney has still never won the FA Cup. Which is weird.
Sitting just nine points behind fourth-placed Spurs with 18 games remaining, Champions League qualification for Everton this season doesn’t seem entirely preposterous. Not this season, anyway. They boast the Premier League’s joint top-goalscorer, and few other sides can lay claim to having three £40million-rated players in their ranks. And that’s not including Gerard Deulofeu. “I don’t think winning a cup will keep the young players, I think qualifying for the Champions League could help to keep young players,” said Roberto Martinez earlier this week. Hit a good run of form, and Everton can challenge the league’s elite.
But it simply won’t happen. Everton are 11th for a reason. Just once have they won consecutive games this season, beating Reading and West Brom back to back in September. Their longest unbeaten run in all competitions is eight games, a run comprising five draws. The Toffees have all the ingredients on the pitch, but something is off. Could it be the chef?
Martinez is right to value Champions League qualification over cup competitions; it’s a no-brainer. But some clubs do not have the choice, and Everton fall firmly into that category. There is a point at which clubs must review their stance on the domestic cups, and the Toffees have reached that crossroads. It’s one Martinez knows only too well. With his Wigan side mired in a relegation battle in 2013, the Spaniard helped them to an unlikely FA Cup final win over Manchester City. The price was Premier League relegation. The stakes are nowhere near as high for Martinez’s Everton. They have nothing to lose.
With no European football to contend with, and a Premier League campaign threatening underwhelming mediocrity, cups could provide Martinez’s salvation. A Capital One Cup semi-final first leg advantage over Manchester City will appease fans for now, but the FA Cup would be the preferred option. The 1995 triumph represents Everton’s last trophy, and the power of ending that wait will not be lost on Martinez. It could even save him his job.
Alright then, Jurgen, here we go. You can choose either your error-prone goalkeeper, or your other error-prone goalkeeper. Players will need a rest ahead of back-to-back Premier League games against Arsenal and Manchester United next week, so that’s Connor Randall and Brad Smith in place of Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno as full-backs. Next, it’s two from Lucas Leiva, Tiago Ilori and Jose Enrique.
And that’s just the defence. Injuries have decimated Liverpool’s squad, with hamstrings tweaked, pulled and strained almost simultaneously. Is it Jurgen Klopp’s pressing style? Simple bad luck? A packed fixture schedule? A combination of all three, perhaps. But League Two Exeter City, 16th in England’s fourth tier, and in the midst of a four-game run of consecutive league losses, await on Friday. They could well boast more experience in their matchday squad than their Premier League counterparts at Anfield.
Despite all their current problems, the importance of England’s premier domestic cup is not lost on Klopp. “If someone wants to write headlines it is not the truth because we respect the FA Cup,” he said on Thursday, predicting a typical media backlash. “There is one reason for the team we will play tomorrow.” With their quest to finish in the top four hanging in the balance, Klopp knows that the best alternative is to deliver the club’s first silverware since 2012. It was the Capital One Cup back then, and it could be again this season. For Liverpool fans though, this would be the perfect hors d’oeuvre before the main meal. May will represent a decade since Liverpool last won the FA Cup, their longest wait in 42 years. Klopp just needs to find enough players to field in each round. Can Lucas play on the wing?
This has been a slightly odd season for Stoke, whose summer transfer activity and new-ish style of play has seen them become media darlings. For all the raving, Mark Hughes’ side only have three points more than the same stage last season and are three points ahead of Tony Pulis’ West Brom.
With no danger of relegation and a poor result against Liverpool in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final, Stoke may as well give the FA Cup both barrels. They face a tricky away trip to Doncaster Rovers – resurgent under Darren Ferguson – but much will depend on Hughes’ team selection.
“I’ve not won anything as a manager, I’ve been to a couple of semi-finals in the League Cup and FA Cup. But never made the final step,” said Hughes before their fifth-round tie with Blackburn last season. “It’s been a good competition. I’d love to win it as a manager, absolutely. It’s the best cup competition in the world. Everybody involved in this round will be thinking exactly the same thing: if they can get into the quarter-finals every team will think they can win it. We just need to make sure we’re in the hat.”
Stoke promptly lost 4-1 to Championship Blackburn.
Newcastle might well be locked in a relegation battle, but fatigue can be no excuse for abandoning hopes of an FA Cup run. In fact, it could be a turning point.
Newcastle’s treatment of the cup competitions has been a consistent bone of contention between supporters and club. The hierarchy has regularly preached the message that Premier League form is the priority over FA Cup and League Cup runs, with managers putting out weakened teams in both competitions.
It’s not as if that policy had led to quick wins in league form. With Steve McClaren under enormous pressure, victory at Watford could at least spark a mini-revival with two home league games to follow. Newcastle are desperate for any glimmer of positivity.
Bow out in the same limp fashion as normal – Newcastle have never progressed beyond the fourth round under Mike Ashley’s ownership – and supporters will only feel more detached from their club. The list of teams to have knocked out Newcastle in the last seven years is pretty abject: Hull, West Brom, Stevenage, Brighton (twice), Cardiff and Leicester.
Matt Stead and Daniel Storey