As Gonzalo Higuain rattled in his second goal on Tuesday, to make it 2-0 after nine minutes, Sunday’s trip to Spotland took on more significance for Tottenham.
By the end of the 2-2 draw with Juventus, the importance of Sunday’s FA Cup trip to a re-laid pitch at Rochdale had faded a tad. A decent run in the Champions League was back in the offing.
Mauricio Pochettino does not like being asked about the absence of trophies during his time at Spurs. “People say ‘Tottenham need to win a title’,” he said after last Saturday’s defeat of Arsenal. “But for me, the process is more than winning a title.”
In English football, the meaning of the word ‘title’ has changed from winning a league championship to the collection of trophies. So, is the FA Cup a title worth having?
Tottenham is the club of “doing things in style, with a flourish”, to use the Danny Blanchflower “Glory Game” dictum that has been adopted as a club motto, where the “great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning”, but such high-minded ideals can be counterbalanced by what Brian Clough used to refer to as the “taste of Champagne” that comes with lifting a trophy.
Tottenham have not added silverware to their cabinet since winning the League Cup in 2008.
Pochettino sees an extended run in the Champions League as a high value of his “process”, however for Spurs, the FA Cup looks winnable this season. Both Liverpool and Arsenal are out of the running having lost in previous rounds, and Wembley, where the semi-finals and finals will be staged, is Tottenham’s temporary home where they have lost just twice all season.
In the absence of a Premier League title race, with Manchester City on course to claim that crown by March, unopposed by the rest of English football’s “big six”, the FA Cup is a prize that really ought to be targeted by the major players left in the competition. There is a trophy on offer that could serve each manager’s own process.
At Manchester City, there is the chance of what had previously seemed impossible, a quadruple of trophies. Pep Guardiola, who won a mere treble with Barcelona in 2008-9, is doing little to dampen expectations.
“We are still in February and in the Premier League we are in an amazing position and we are almost in the quarter-finals, we are in one final [Carabao Cup] and on Monday we have the opportunity to reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, game by game,” he said after Tuesday’s 4-0 destruction of Basel.
For the rest, denying City has to be a key objective, particularly for Manchester United.
After all it’s where Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1998-9 Treble is jealously guarded as the greatest achievement in English football history.
Jose Mourinho has never been one to turn up his nose at silverware, having won the trophy in 2007 with Chelsea, and making great sway of winning “three titles” last season, spuriously including the Community Shield alongside the League Cup and Europa League trophies collected in actual competitive football.
Winning May’s Wembley showpiece might cast something of a fig leaf over United’s failure to challenge City in the league, and further the idea that Mourinho is slow-burning his way to eventual success at Old Trafford.
The remaining club of the elite quartet left in the FA Cup, Chelsea, have intangibles against them that make it somewhat difficult to discern what designs they may have on a trophy they’ve won five times since 2000.
Antonio Conte’s future is cloudy in the extreme, at a point where he looks to be daring Roman Abramovich to sack him and, mischievously, appeared to welcome widely expected successor Luis Enrique to the club last weekend.
But, should he limp on for the rest of the season, winning the FA Cup could serve as something of a redemption, having lost last year’s final to Arsenal.
Conte could also break his duck of never having won a cup competition in his management career.
It probably wouldn’t be enough to keep him in the job, and Mourinho might still feel the heat despite winning it, bearing in mind that Louis van Gaal was sacked mere hours after United’s 2016 win, with league position and entertainment levels counting against him.
Only at Arsenal, where three FA Cups in four years prolonged Wenger’s reign, has the old trophy been viewed anything like achievement of objectives, and it will provide no such solace this season for a Gunners manager again under pressure.
And yet, though the FA Cup’s faded grandeur means it is no longer the competition that stops a nation for a Saturday in May, there is much to play for.