The FA Cup final will come into its own at some point today, find a space when we have eyes only for it. Probably when Manchester United and Chelsea line up in the tunnel, the players staring intently at nothing in particular while gently loosening limbs. And for 90 or so minutes thereafter the teams and the supporters will care about the outcome.
Yet in a wider sense the match carries diminished significance for two Premier League power clubs geared to the appropriation of bigger prizes. Though there will always be a quaint, residual importance attached to the oldest knockout competition in the world, and whenever United and Chelsea share a pitch the contest will not want for tension, but this match plays out in a context defined by others.
Manchester City’s record-breaking season in the Premier League has moved the story on, changed the way we think about the game, reset the agenda. And Liverpool’s rollicking, vibrant, pacy passage to the Champions League final, which included the rampant conquest of City in the quarter-finals, has thrown further shade on today’s combatants. The stuff of real consequence and scale is happening elsewhere, leaving United and Chelsea contesting the egg and spoon race.
The real manifestation of that can be felt in the political inferno that has engulfed Antonio Conte all season. Rarely has a title defence unravelled so quickly, even at Chelsea, a club that loves lopping off the heads of Caesars. That Conte has guided his team to the traditional Wembley showpiece is regarded by the board as an irritant not a boon since it delays by a week the execution and the resulting coaching re-organisation.
The position for Jose Mourinho is no less acute, though there is no danger of his losing his head in the coming days. That fate will be upon us soon enough, however, should he not respond to market prompts. Come November, were United to be trailing City, not so much materially as aesthetically, his reign will become unsustainable.
The departure of his long-time aide Rui Faria has forced upon Mourinho a restructuring of his coaching set-up. Though he is looking to recruit an experienced hand to fulfil some of Faria’s duties, the role of No 2 remains vacant. The clever suggestion by Mourinho places Michael Carrick at the head of the line of succession should he grow into the space once his coaching badges are completed.
The hint of renewal associated with the backroom reshuffle presents Mourinho as an evolving coach, one ready to take on new ideas. That he must is obvious if United are to make a dent in City’s supremacy, measured at 20 points in the Premier League. The more so considering that Pep Guardiola will not be sucking on his pipe over the summer. The “so, so happy” Catalan is already pledging improvements to his beautiful construct as others adapt to counter or better City’s offering.
Mourinho could not be in a bigger jam. Hemmed in by City and Jurgen Klopp’s attack-happy Liverpool, patience is not something he can expect from the United diaspora, especially if the sample returning south on the train to London following the last match of the season reflect the wider mood.
The boys from Milton Keynes and Bletchley had spent the afternoon in a box and loved the exposure to the likes of Norman Whiteside and Nicky Butt. The downside was the stuff on the pitch. The prevailing view was anti-Mourinho and hardening, with one critic suggesting the Special One had done more harm to his club than either Louis van Gaal of David Moyes. Yikes.
There was a time in the post Busby-pre Ferguson dark ages when the FA Cup was the only prize United could win, claiming it four times during the 26-year hiatus between championship wins in 1967 and 1993. Back then it still meant something to lift it. The week before would dominate media schedules, and who can forget Cup Final It’s a Knockout on the day itself, kicking off hours of broadcast tribute to the finalists? The televised pageant would build towards an exquisite peak as the teams were filmed leaving their cup final hotels on Park Lane for Wembley.
This afternoon United could equal Arsenal’s record of 13 wins, which is deeply ironic since Mourinho, in the days before reconciliation, would dismiss Arsene Wenger as a specialist in failure for his attachment to the old pot. Now here he is in the Wenger slot, the title seemingly beyond the scope of his imagination and reach, syphoned by a team playing cavalier football in the spirit of the old United.
Win or lose, Conte looks doomed either way. Mourinho has the summer to find the players he needs to challenge City next term. As the departures of Sam Allardyce from Everton and David Moyes from West Ham demonstrate, results are not the only consideration. It is the manner of their delivery that decides who stays and who goes.
Guardiola and Klopp have changed our ways of seeing. Lethal, attacking football is the new pragmatism, the method most likely to bring success. That’s a sea change in thinking for Mourinho to grasp and absorb. His challenge is to adapt, to join the party or to come up with a better alternative. Plonking the FA Cup on the sideboard won’t be enough if watching makes the eyes bleed.