Manchester City’s hopes of an historic ‘quadruple’ are over following Manuel Pellegrini’s decision, in a fit of pique, to pick a youth team to play Chelsea in an FA Cup fifth round tie and there could now be repercussions not just for the future of the competition too but for his own season too.
City go straight from this fixture into a Champions League tie in Kiev in midweek and on to a League Cup final after that; so Pellegrini has largely escaped universal criticism for fielding five young debutants at Stamford Bridge and complaining about the scheduling of matches in England which seems to inherently punish successful sides.
But that’s not to say, however, that his decision will not have consequences following a 5-1 defeat — both for the mentality of City as a club and for the reputation of a competition which seems once again to have a fight on its hands as it bids to hold on to traditional values in an era in which money talks so much more loudly.
The famous old competition has survived worse than this, of course, but the half-hearted atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, the half-paced game and the inevitable cricket result (despite a very brave performance from Pellegrini’s youngsters in the first half) hardly enhanced its reputation.
Nor did Pellegrini’s admission in the build-up that he wouldn’t buy a ticket to watch the game; a shameful statement no matter how bitter he may feel about the fixture.
Perhaps, knowing he will not be here next season, the Chilean felt he had little to lose but he owed for more to a competition won by City in 1904, 1934, 1956, 1969 and 2011 — and he should also know that many managers before him have found messing with the FA Cup can result in a psychological impact which lasts long beyond the 90 minutes.
Remember Paul Lambert at Aston Villa? With his team fighting a relegation battle in January 2014 he made it pretty clear he had no interest in the famous competition ahead of a tie against Sheffield United at Villa Park, announcing he would field a a weakened side.
It was a press conference which didn’t go down well with Villa fans, who had already bought tickets and saw the FA Cup as their only realistic chance of success.
It surprised no one that Villa subsequently lost at home to the Blades, that Lambert was booed off or that national newspapers lambasted him the following day, setting in place a run of events which eventually led to him being sacked.
Back in 2005, Rafa Benitez learned a hard lesson, too. In his first FA Cup tie he failed to grasp the importance of the competition to Liverpool fans, fielding a weakened team at Burnley and suffering a miserable defeat, compounded by a comical own goal from Djimi Traore. The headlines the following day were vicious and harmful – and perhaps influenced Benitez’s approach in future years as he went on to become a cup specialist at Anfield.
For Pellegrini there will be no such reprieve – he was already on his way long before this defeat, which is perhaps why he can afford to hang to consequences and hope his well- rested first-team players produce a result in Kiev which justifies his gamble.
Of course he can also point to positives in the first half at Stamford Bridge – not least a debut goal for young David Faupala, who is not even first choice in City’s development squad. But the FA Cup deserves better than this kind of walk in the park — and for a club with the resources of Manchester City to feel they have the power, and the right, to toy with a competition most supporters still value highly, is simply wrong.
Chelsea, to their credit, have never fallen into that trap — a fact which is borne out by five FA Cups in their trophy cabinet since the turn of the century. So for Manchester City to turn down the opportunity to win a trophy in the way they did at Stamford Bridge yesterday is disrespectful and shameful, no matter how talented their 18-year-olds may be. No-one can predict the future but with their poor record in Europe and inconsistent form in the Premier League it may yet prove a big mistake.
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