As the teams started appearing out of the proverbial hat for the FA Cup for the 3rd Round Draw, you would have forgiven the likes of Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri for shrugging and returning their attention to seemingly more important matters. Both managers have around seven or eight games to play before they encounter lower league opposition in what will be their first ever FA Cup matches.
The Premier League, of course, has a lot of business to do over the Christmas period, a time which is usually cited as season defining for many teams. On paper, there are four or five clubs in the hunt for the Premier League title – Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs. That’s on paper though; in reality, only Liverpool are in with a chance of catching Pep Guardiola’s men – and even that is unlikely.
City odds-on to retain Premier League title
Don’t be fooled by the sometimes-hyperbolic marketing of sports broadcasters when they talk of title deciders. Consider how the bookmakers have priced up the title race: with less than half the season gone by, the best price you can get on Man City for a second successive title is 2/9 (Coral). Despite being in 3rd place, Chelsea are 50/1 (Unibet). Arsenal and Spurs are 60/1 and 80/1 respectively. For the bookies, the decision has been made.
The FA Cup betting is a totally different matter though. Bookies must weigh up that clubs will balance their needs against the Premier League and European competition. City are still favourites of course, but the odds of 5/1 from 888sport reflect that it won’t be as easy as the league. Chelsea come in at 7/1, with the North London clubs, Spurs an Arsenal, both at a tempting 10/1.
Chelsea and Arsenal are both involved in the Europa League, and certainly doing very well. Emery – seen as a Europa League specialist – will carry the weight of expectation from Arsenal fans. However, this shouldn’t be seen as the only route to rebooting the fortunes of the North London club. Nor should Sarri throw all his eggs in the Europa League basket come spring time.
Handy FA Cup draws for London clubs
Indeed, the FA Cup draw was kind to Chelsea and Arsenal, with the former drawn at home to Nottingham Forest and the latter getting an easy tie away to Blackpool or Solihull. Spurs – who could also do with some silverware under Mauricio Pochettino – also got non-league opposition in the form of Tranmere or Southport.
The point is that each of these three clubs could be in within a few games of an FA Cup final before the knockout phase of the Europa League begins (Spurs’ Champions League fate has not been sorted at the time of writing, but they could easily join Chelsea and Arsenal in Europe’s secondary competition this spring).
In that scenario, the managers are going to have to start prioritising competitions. Of course, Champions League ambitions for the 2019/20 season will come first, so you could see the managers focusing on a Top 4 finish or Europa League Final. But clubs can also feel like they are stuck in some kind of existentialist loop, just doing enough to qualify for the Champions League, failing and repeat.
Sarri and Emery would do well to remember that there is more to English football than European qualification or the Premier League. For contrasting, yet compelling, reasons, the FA Cup might be the perfect way for them to signal their arrival at their new clubs.