With the Premier League title race settled, attention now turns to the FA Cup this weekend, but there is the argument it was a competition that better suited the unideal circumstances anyway. The inherent nature of knock-out football adds an intensity all of its own, no matter who is in the stands.
There can be no flatness there. The fact there’s been such a break only adds to that. It won’t feel the odd broken continuation the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ has, but almost a new competition all of its own. That itself will bring a bit more intensity. Perhaps the only pity is that it’s not being done over a week or so like the Champions League, which would have allowed to build even more momentum and feel more self-contained.
It’s still all the more fitting that it is an FA Cup that might well mean a bit more than usual to all eight quarter-finals. It would be no afterthought.
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That is certainly true for the deposed champions. As disappointing as losing the league has been, Manchester City could yet re-assert this period of magnificence and domination by winning every cup competition available. That would be quite the return, and sets up quite the game against Newcastle United. Steve Bruce’s side couldn’t be more different.
They are still waiting for that first trophy in 51 years. It may be all the more fulfilling amid the uncertainty of the Saudi takeover, but the team itself actually feels on sturdier ground right now. Bruce has restored a stability, and a style of play that is at the very least conducive to the best way to set up against City.
Chelsea’s game against Leicester City instinctively feels the pick of the four. Leicester are actually the club who will probably see the FA Cup as the least important of the eight, as the danger rises of that Champions League place slipping away, but they could also do with re-igniting their season. Maybe this can do it.
Similar applies to Sheffield United, who opened Project Restart with that goal that never was, and have suffered most from it. Their form has been nothing like what it was beforehand. At the same time, the one-off nature of a tie may restore some old fire, and they will surely see this uncertain Arsenal as a team there for the taking.
Norwich City, finally, have nothing to lose – exactly the attitude that favours cup football.
The circumstances may well favour it too.
If the Premier League has felt a little flat in these conditions, and there is always the danger that mostly meaningless run-in games just peter out, the FA Cup can’t be like that. These quarter-finals have immediate consequences, only amplified by the context. It makes the competition feel all the more compelling.
It may yet offer the best football of lockdown so far.
The Chelsea-City game was instructive in that regard. With a trophy on the line, and sudden death for City’s title challenge, it was a genuinely crackling game. The hope is the FA Cup offers this in abundance.
It has all the conditions in place, and may well suit these conditions much more than the Premier League.