After Manchester United famously won their treble in May 1999 in Barcelona, it felt like the team and its boss Sir Alex Ferguson were suddenly on top of the world. That’s exactly what they sought to achieve when looking forward to the new millennium in the form of the FIFA Club World Championship in South America, held to determine the best club side in the world.
The tournament itself was quickly forgotten about however, as the damaging aftereffects of England’s most successful club choosing to withdraw from defending their FA Cup. The lingering consequences of that decision are still felt 18 years later.
The club performed poorly in the tournament that January, failing to make it past the group stages against relative minnows Necaxa and Vasco da Gama from Mexico and Brazil, respectively.
The fact the world’s biggest club pulled out from football’s oldest cup tournament caused much controversy and is one of the main reasons the often called “magic of the FA cup” is hard to conjure up nowadays, due it now being considered a second-tier competition.
In fact, it was the offer from the Football Association itself towards Manchester United asking them to withdraw from their very own trophy that beggars the most belief. Their reasoning was that if Manchester United took part in the Club World Cup, it could aid England’s 2006 World Cup hosting bid, which were successfully held not on English but German shores. An all-round disaster.
We’ve been here before
Fast forward almost two decades and Manchester United this season found themselves in a handy position in the FA Cup.
A home fixture in the quarterfinals against a Brighton side battling relegation, and without the prospect of an unnecessary replay and two of the best football teams in Liverpool and Manchester City already dumped out, there was little to fear for Jose Mourinho’s men this year.
Mourinho’s side may have got the job done, winning 2-0, but he was not impressed. The subbing off of Luke Shaw and criticism of his entire side (Nemanja Matic aside), has meant Shaw will look to leave the club at the end of the season.
After his rant after the loss to Sevilla, you sense that a toxic atmosphere is brewing at Old Trafford, not too dissimilar to the car crash of a season he endured at the end of his second spell at Chelsea, where the PL champions finished 10th.
Money or medals?
One of the reasons behind the shunning of the FA Cup by the larger teams in recent years is the prioritising of Champions League qualification.
Manchester United are handily placed in second place in the Premier League, they sit only nine points ahead of Chelsea in fifth. After the Red Devils’ shock exit to Sevilla in the week in the Champions League, their only avenue into next year’s premier European qualification is a top four position.
The debate to whether the financial gains of a Champions League place outweigh the joy of a trophy has been a longstanding one. Manchester United do have a proud history in the FA Cup however, having the second most wins after Arsenal with 12, meaning they will take the semis and final very seriously.
They have been handed a tricky draw against Tottenham for the semifinals, with Spurs having the almost home advantage at Wembley. United do have a habit of picking up undeserving victories of late though, with wins against Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and now Brighton irritating the rest of the division. With that in mind, you would be foolish to bet against a Mourinho victory at Wembley.
Mourinho’s job under threat
The win over Brighton carried greater weight due to the circumstances around Mourinho’s position as the manager.
In almost a paradoxical problem, the Manchester United fans seem to give off a sense angst against their team, despite being second-place to perhaps the best Premier League team of all time. Against Sevilla, the Stretford End could be heard chanting “attack, attack, attack”.
The two trophies of last season are being forgotten about as the issues are by in large due to the ‘pragmatic’ style of football Mourinho deploys. It’s a stark contrast to the attacking brand played by their City neighbours.
Whilst the criticism of dull football has led to fans calling for Mourinho’s job, the manager can look at the previous season for encouragement that the cup competitions can act as his saving grace.
Similarly, failing to threaten runaway leaders Chelsea in the league at all, like with Manchester City this year, the club ended up enjoying a successful season with both the League Cup and the Europa League trophy added to the cabinet. Arsene Wenger kept his job at Arsenal last season thanks to an FA Cup victory over Chelsea, making Mourinho’s task even clearer.
Whether Jose might want to prioritise a Champions League place or not, the much maligned FA Cup could end up saving his job. No danger of Manchester United dropping out of the FA Cup this time round.
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