Monday 18 February ~
Saturday afternoon was like something from an alternate reality where the Premier League had never happened: Bristol Rovers and Cardiff both progressed to the last eight of the FA Cup for the first time in the lives of most of their supporters, and Liverpool lost at home in the last minute to a team with the worst away record in their division. The FA Cup suddenly seemed to matter. Indeed, Wolves fans were so incensed by their tame capitulation at Cardiff that they heaped abuse on their players as they warmed down on the pitch – and a simmering Mick McCarthy seemed poised to thump Sky's post-match interviewer for asking if he was upset.
But February 16 will be forgotten if in three months' time the final is another Man Utd v Chelsea grudge match, or a one-sided stroll for one of the big two against opponents who been gifted a UEFA Cup place having avoided difficult fixtures on their way to Wembley. Liverpool finally succumbed to cup humiliation after a couple of narrow squeaks against Luton and Havant & Waterlooville. But they rested key players because they have a Champions League tie on Tuesday. Arsenal, also awaiting visitors from Milan, went about their FA Cup tie with a sort of sullen nonchalance. Even with a half-team half-playing, Arsenal would have expected to go through against most other opponents.
For the big three-plus-Liverpool the Cup now functions as a compensation, like the 'plate' competitions some sports have for teams knocked out in early rounds of major championships. The various reforms that have been suggested, such increasing the prize money or giving a Champions League place to the winners, won't make a significant difference to the FA Cup – it can only be saved if the chronic imbalance in the league is corrected. In a generous assessment of the universally derided Game 39 plan, the Sunday Telegraph's Patrick Barclay argues that the rightly lambasted Richard Scudamore was at least trying to address the issue of how the 16-team rump of the Premier League can increase their income: "Flawed thinking is better than no thinking at all on the vital subject of competitive balance within the League."
But any sort of reform that might involve spreading the wealth around would meet resistance from the top clubs, who want to make the domestic league progressively less competitive. Arsène Wenger, for one, is not thinking about how to reform the PL but where to move on to next. And if the international league that Wenger seems to be yearning for ever happens, Arsenal won't have to be bothered ever again with distractions such as the FA Cup.