Best to come straight out with this because it is not going to be popular.
Anyone wishing for a memorable or meaningful FA Cup final, rather than the usual limp conclusion to a competition visibly dying on its feet, had better hope Manchester United beat Arsenal on Saturday and are kept apart from their neighbours should both clubs make the semi‑final draw. Only a Manchester derby at Wembley, it appears, can save the end‑of-season showpiece from becoming an inconvenient obligation and turn it into a contest that matters.
No disrespect is intended to Birmingham City, who have already given us one splendid cup final, or to other teams still in the competition, including Arsenal. But this season's FA Cup final occurs one week before the end of the Premier League and two weeks before the Champions League final, which is being played on the same ground. While it is just about still possible to end up with two well-matched finalists with no other commitments, it is much more likely that one or both will have priorities elsewhere. The tussle between Arsenal and United for the title could go all the way to the last day, for instance, and Arsène Wenger has confirmed that his priority is the league. West Ham United may need points to survive, and Manchester City could have a Champions League place at stake. Even a Wembley meeting between Arsenal and City, which sounds like a dream final, could be overshadowed by Champions League considerations in one form or another. Only a Manchester derby, with all the pride, hype and genuine rivalry that involves, could guarantee immunity from one team or the other not taking the final seriously.
As events in Glasgow have just demonstrated, derby matches in knockout competitions have a life of their own. When local pride is at stake, losing timidly is not an option. While one should probably stop short of condoning the mayhem at Celtic Park, there is little doubt the supporters will have enjoyed it and will treasure the memory, which is more than can be said for Aston Villa supporters insulted by Gérard Houllier's baffling team selection on the same night. The only pity about Celtic and Rangers meeting in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup is that the final is now likely to end up a dull, one-sided affair, completely undistinguished by multiple red cards and managers scuffling at the final whistle. Cup football at its best should be all about glory and ambition, even reckless ambition if the minutes are ticking away. It is a moot point whether the latest illustration of Old Firm antipathy deserved to be dignified by any of those terms, though at least no one could doubt that the outcome meant something. In the Premier League you have 38 matches to state your case, in a knockout competition it's a fight on the night.
Which is exactly why Houllier is deservedly in the dock. The Frenchman is accused of reckless caution, which is not just an oxymoron but a new low for English football and the poor old FA Cup. For the record, Villa were 12th in the table on Wednesday, four places above Birmingham and on the same number of points as Everton, whose own FA Cup exit the night before brought howls of protest and what amounted to a public apology from David Moyes. Granted, being a mere five points above the relegation zone is no guarantee of safety, but neither is capitulating in a competition that could have brightened up the end of an otherwise dull season. What Villa fans cannot understand is why Houllier chose to rest players who have hardly been caught in a maelstrom of sapping fixtures.
Before the City tie Villa had played three matches in 25 days, and after this weekend they have only one game scheduled for the rest of this month, at home to Wolves. The only possible explanation is that Houllier wanted out of the competition, not because he thought Villa couldn't give City a game, but because he was afraid of replays or subsequent rounds getting in the way of important league matches later in the season. That is what is killing the FA Cup, and why only games that come with an internal integrity of their own, such as derbies, have a chance of surmounting the financial imperatives of staying in the Premier League or making the Champions League cut.
When Houllier was at Liverpool he gave the distinct impression that the FA Cup was an important trophy any team would be proud to win, now he seems to agree with almost everyone else that it doesn't matter very much. If it matters so little there is no good reason, apart from tradition, why the Cup should continue to clutter up the end of the season. Either move it or bin it, but let's not just keep going through the motions. Even if Manchester comes to the rescue this year it would be unwise to predict too many derby finals in the future. Not when half of the second city can't get up for it.
Touré, Wenger and a bitter pill
This week's crop of football stories you couldn't make up if you tried: Latin American player kicks owl on pitch, England left-back shoots student with air rifle at training ground, Manchester City centre‑half falls foul of drugs test after taking one of his wife's diet pills.
All highly entertaining, unless you happened to be the owl or the student, but whoever thought Arsène Wenger would wade in with: "Never trust your wife!"? Apart from the fact that the real moral of the Kolo Touré story was never trust a dozy husband with his wife's medicine cupboard, what happened to the old romantic Wenger, the one that was part football genius and part Leonard Cohen? The Arsenal manager was entitled to be disappointed when another trophy slipped out of his grasp at Wembley last week, but one hopes he hasn't been taking it out on his missus. Please don't say he no longer subscribes to the view that everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.
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