FA Cup

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Managers face risk, reward in FA Cup

FA Cup: Highlights of Arsenal's 1-0 victory over Swansea.
FA Cup: Highlights of Arsenal's 1-0 victory over Swansea.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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It’s a question that all Premier League managers must confront: how many resources do you invest in Cup play?

Interludes in the congested Premier League schedule like this weekend’s fourth round of the FA Cup pose a challenge. Do you rest your regulars and risk an embarrassingly premature elimination from the world’s premier domestic cup tournament? Or do you double down on the FA Cup in hopes of picking up silverware? Do you experiment with your next league game in mind? Or do you blood some prospects?

For the last decade or two, Premier League managers have vacillated between those approaches. In fact, Manchester United controversially skipped this tournament altogether in the 1999-2000, drawing the ire of much of England by spurning a competition many thought of as sacred in favor of the inaugural Club World Cup. That was a decision long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson has since said he regrets.

He nevertheless opted to rotate his squad in the FA Cup, deploying his reserves against West Ham in the third round. The depth of his squad is such, however, that the quality hardly dropped off, with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nani, Antonio Valencia, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney, in his comeback from an injury, all in the lineup to eke out a 1-0 win. Having just weathered two testing league games against Liverpool and Tottenham, he may well opt to gamble on his reserves again when they host Fulham on Saturday (Saturday, 12.30 a.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).

His opponents have a choice to make, too. The Cottagers have won just two of their last 15 league games, sinking from sixth place to 14th in that time. Last year’s talk of in-fighting and chafing under manager Martin Jol has resurfaced and the 2-0 weekend loss to Manchester City was particularly dire. Jol now has to decide between pursuing a win that could do his squad’s morale a world of good, using this game as a proving ground for wholesale changes that will help him turn around his league fortunes -- or surrendering at the outset by fielding his understudies and reducing the strain on his first team.

Arsenal’s
Arsene Wenger has traditionally played understudies or scrubs in need of competitive minutes. So starved of silverware has the club been of late, however, that he played his regulars in the two games it took to dispatch Swansea City in the third round. He can be expected to do the same against second-tier Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Saturday, 9.30 a.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel). For it’s surely not controversial to declare that Arsenal will make it nine straight years without winning the league this season, and the FA Cup represents its best chance to hoist a trophy for the first time since winning it in 2005. After its humiliating quarterfinal ouster from the League Cup at the hands of fourth-tier Bradford City, Wenger’s side has some redemption to earn.

This dilemma is not unfamiliar to the other Premier League teams still in the hunt. They can let the Cup take a back seat at the expense of the league and risk being left empty-handed in both, or they can choose to fight hard on all fronts but depleting their players’ reserves.

The conundrum is inequitable to a side like Stoke City, facing bottomless-pocketed Manchester City (Saturday, 7.45 a.m. ET, Fox Soccer Plus), as the difference in squad depth is vast. Spurs, meanwhile, have to adjudge how many liberties they can take with its staffing against a solid second-tier outfit like Leeds United (Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel). So too does Everton, who lack solid replacements for their regulars but play a tough opponent when they travel to recently relegated Bolton.

Should they take their games too lightly, other top-flight teams increase the risk of becoming the victim of a 'giant-killing' – an endearing old term for the many Cinderella runs this tournament typically produces thanks to its total openness to any English or Welsh club. Norwich City and Wigan Athletic play fifth-tier Luton Town and Macclesfield Town, respectively (Saturday, 10 a.m. & 7 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Plus). Third-tier Brentford and Oldham Athletic, meanwhile, host Chelsea and Liverpool respectively (Sunday, 6.55 a.m. and 11 a.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).

Teams involved in the relegation battle are playing at even higher stakes. Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers and Reading face Millwall, Milton Keynes Dons and Sheffield United respectively, and will have to question whether slogging through the typically physical games against these second- and third-tier teams at full strength could exact too high a toll on their survival chances in the league.

The risk is great, but so is the potential reward.

 

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderOnFOX.

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