Manchester City’s FA Cup elimination at the hands of Stoke city leaves the Blues with just one thing to play for this season, fourth place.
While every football fan wants to see their team lift a trophy, just what is more important – winning the FA Cup or reaching the Champions League?Of course, it is not one or the other. There was no reason City could not have won on Wednesday night, moved into the tournament’s latter stages and been successful in May while still grabbing fourth spot. But they only have themselves to blame for that no longer being an option. If City had seen off the challenge of Stoke and then overcome Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, they would be a game away from the final and likely facing a team below them in the league. In this hypothetical scenario, City would still be in with a chance of winning their first FA Cup since 1969 and reaching the Champions League Promised Land. Finishing fourth is a great achievement for a team outside the regular Champions League cabal and the culmination of a grueling 38-game season. Going to Wembley for the first time since 1999 and the first time for a major trophy since the FA Cup final of 1981 would have been a joy unparalleled. The delight of clinching what promises to be the closest race for fourth in Premier League history will be immense but nothing compared to the satisfaction of a victorious FA Cup semi-final, looking around Wembley and knowing you will be back here in a few weeks and eagerly plotting the return journey as you head back North.
To reap the rewards of finishing fourth you have to wait until August, when the Champions League returns, and by then all manner of problems could have occurred. The FA Cup is a more immediate experience and is most definitely the greater occasion for fans. Hearing Abide With Me being sung at Wembley is more memorable than the dirge that is the Champions League theme. Many of the players would likely prefer a trophy and a winner’s medal too, because in 25 years, when they are each long-retired, a 2010 FA Cup win would live longer in the memory than merely being the fourth best team in the country. Although the prospect of testing themselves against the best teams in Europe will be a tempting one for the more competitive members of City’s squad. Fourth place is not a guarantee of that, but rather the final hurdle before the real contest of the group stage and as an un-seeded side, which City surely would be, the hurdle in front of Roberto Mancini and company could be a big one. Everton found to their cost the perils of being un-seeded in the Champions League qualifying rounds but City’s team would be better placed to progress than Everton’s in 2005.
The City hierarchy would doubtlessly revel in the pomp and circumstance of their team reaching and winning an FA Cup final. They almost certainly would have privately used the occasion to point out how well the ‘project’ is going while rubbing their hands together at the thought of what being FA Cup holders could do for the City ‘brand’. Nevertheless, if forced to choose between a place in the Champions League or winning the FA Cup, the decision-makers would be reaching for their passports. Not that that is the wrong option, as the businessmen running City recognise the importance of being a Champions League side and want to get there as quickly as possible. Take away the zeal of being a City fan, the Champions League seems the logical choice. There would be greater cache with Europe’s elite players, forcing City’s name into the mix of Europe’s top teams – a clear sign that City could challenge not just for fourth but the league itself in the near future. Logic is an all-too-rare commodity in football, and the prospect of FA Cup glory at the magnificent Wembley stadium with the history that surrounds the world’s oldest cup competition are influential factors that can sway the balance.
An FA Cup win is a short-term glory, whereas finishing fourth can be more beneficial in the long run if you make the most of it. Being knocked out of the FA Cup is always disappointing but City’s real fight is a far from over.
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