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Battling on multiple fronts: Impact of the FA Cup on UEFA Champions League prospects

Analyzing the effect of the FA Cup on the Champions League of all the top English clubs

FA Cup Champions League

The English Premier League is a sporting behemoth. The carnival, which churns one exotic encounter after another sans ‘home-grown’ exhibits, invokes unprecedented global viewership. Encompassing intense and absorbing encounters, ranging from the battle between the top guns to the relegation humdingers, the league serves up a footballing feast relished by audiences ubiquitously.

Evoking passionate parleys, from London to Langkawi, the Premier League is endorsed by millions, who bask in its all pervading radiance, enshrining the inclusivity espoused by the beautiful game. An unparalleled TV revenue stream affirms the league’s massive viewership, as powerhouses ply on pitches, sparkling under glittering lights, with vociferous crowds egging on their troops to gallop and conquer.

So it is tragic then that its talented talismans, who enable the transcendence of the game beyond its stage and into our drawing rooms, are wilting under the symphony.

A despairing descent

The Champions League has over the years provided the perfect stage for the unraveling of riveting tales involving British Dramatis Personae. The acquisition of this Holy Grail has bestowed immortality on teams such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, with each triumph imbued with its own anti-climatic narrative, none more so than the Moscow final which represented the zenith of British football. But since then, the picture has turned somewhat gloomy.

The gradual decline in the number of quarterfinalists – from three in the 2010/11, season to the last eight being bereft of English participation two seasons later – has jolted the clubs and their comrades alike. Compounding the crisis are the continuous treble-winning campaigns of Barcelona, Inter and Bayern, stealing some sheen from the much heralded heroics of United a decade ago.

With Germany now a whisker away in the UEFA coefficients rankings, English football is at the crossroads, and its ascent is predicated on serious introspection. The reasons currently in circulation that are offered up to decode the malaise include the League’s competitiveness, which has come about with the bridging of the gap between the elites and the endangered.

Moreover, the defection to other leagues of flagship names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, et al, has diluted the quality of the prospective challengers, spicing up domestic affairs whilst tipping the scales in continental duels.

A more direct and physical approach to the game, in conjunction with a punishing schedule minus any winter breaks, has been touted as a plausible reason for the plummeting performances. Also, the fact that the season incorporates two domestic cups has been bandied about as an impediment to a sustained assault on the Champions League.

“Sometimes so seriously that we suffered in the Champions League after. Many times a cup game was in front of a Champions League game – for instance this week we play in the cup and then next week in the Champions League.

Many times we lost some players. I remember against Manchester United when we played against Chelsea in the Champions League three days later we lost some because we took the game seriously.”

- Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

In a recent admission, Arsene Wenger said that domestic dalliances may have scuppered Arsenal’s Champions League prospects. That provides fodder for an intriguing debate about the impact that a deep run in the English cup competitions has on a team’s European adventure.

While the League Cup has been often brandished as a distracting bedlam, fit for sounding out potential young superstars, it provides minimal distraction to teams engaging in European expeditions. That is evident from the fact that both Chelsea and Tottenham can balance this anomaly on 15th of March without taxing themselves, ensuring unmitigated focus on the global frontier.

The statistical slate

Having ruled out the repercussions of the League Cup, we proceed to scrutinize Mr. Wenger’s assertion, statistically.

Tabulating the results of six English Premier League clubs who have entered the premier European Competitions (the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup) since the advent of this century helps interlink the performances in the FA Cup and the European competitions.

A four-fold criterion has been employed to ascertain this relationship, namely:

  1. The number of times a team has gone beyond round 4 of the FA Cup;
  2. Progression beyond round of 16 of the UCL* during appearances beyond round 4 of the FA Cup;
  3. The number of times a team has gone beyond round 6 of the FA Cup; and
  4. Progression beyond quarter-finals of the UCL* during appearances beyond round 6 of the FA Cup.

Notes:

  • The rationale behind choosing the respective markers (round 4 [FA Cup] and round of 16 [UCL]) of the first two criteria and the last two (round 6 [FA Cup] and quarterfinals [UCL]) is to synchronize performances in the respective competitions, keeping in mind the time frame during which the dates of these competitions overlap.
  • Newcastle United has been omitted from the analysis, notwithstanding their qualification to UCL in 2002/03 and 2003/04.
  • From the 2000/01 to the 2002/03 season, the Champions League used to have two group stages, followed by quarter-finals. From 2003/04 onwards the Champions League has contained three qualifying rounds, followed by a 32-team group stage, and knockouts commencing from the round of 16.
  • Manchester United did not participate in the FA Cup in the 1999/2000 season.
  • *: QF – Quarterfinals, SF – Semi-finals, GS – Group Stages, RU – Runners up, W – Won, GS2 – second group stage, UCL – UEFA Champions League, N.A. – Not Applicable.

Manchester United

Post 2000/01:-

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

2

3

2

2

2

2

1

UCL

QF,QF

GS, QF, SF

GS, QF

W, R16

RU, RU

R16, SF

R16

Inferences:

  1. Have progressed past round 4 on 9 times in the past 14 seasons.
  2. Out of those 9 occasions, progression beyond R16 has occurred 5 times.
  3. Forays beyond round 6 have happened 5 times, with 3 appearances beyond the QFs in UCL during those occasions.

Verdict: Being managed by the seasoned taskmaster and genius tactician Sir Alex Ferguson meant that in spite of lifting the big ears only once since the turn of the century, United have always been in the reckoning in cup competitions, perhaps even riding the momentum accrued from the FA Cup, to do well in the UCL.

Arsenal

Since 00/01:

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

0

2

4

1

2

1

4

UCL

N.A.

RU, QF

R16, QF, R16, R16

R16

QF, SF

QF

R16, R16, GS2, GS2





Inferences:

  1. Have progressed past R4 on 12 occasions since 2000.
  2. Out of those 12 instances, progression beyond R16 has happened 4 times (2 appearances in group stage-2 in the older format).
  3. Have gone beyond R6 7 times, out of which once reached quarters and 2 appearances in group stage-2 in the older format.

Verdict: Arsene Wenger’s opinion holds credence, and it seems Arsenal’s progression in the FA Cup has impacted their performances in the UCL.

Chelsea

Post 2000/01:

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

0

1

4

2

2

1

4

UCL

N.A.

QF

SF, SF, SF, UEFA CUP – Round 1

UEFA CUP – Round 1, RU

R16, GS then UEFA CUP WON

UEFA CUP – Round 2

SF, SF, R16, W






Inferences:

  1. Beyond R4 – 13 times.
  2. Progressed 7 times beyond R16, with a Europa League win too.
  3. Beyond R6 7 times, and beyond quarterfinals [UCL] 3 times, with 1 UCL win.

Verdict: Knit for knockouts, Chelsea’s reputation as Cup crusaders holds true, as successful campaigns in multiple competitions alludes to a mental fortitude which enables deliverance on the day of reckoning.

Liverpool

Post 2000/01:

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

4

4

3

0

0

1

2

UCL

W, RU, GS, N.A.

QF, GS, QF, UCL– Round 32

N.A., SF, N.A.

N.A.

N.A.

N.A.

R16, UEFA Cup Winners





Inferences:

  1. Beyond R4 – 6 times
  2. During which in UCL beyond R16 – 1 time, and 1-time UCL winners.
  3. Beyond R6 – 3 times, during which in UCL, beyond quarters – 0, and 1 UEFA Cup win.

Verdict: The unpredictable Scousers have struggled to put up a meaningful fight on multiple fronts, with aberrations like the UCL triumph, UEFA Cup win and FA Cup triumph eulogized for their dramatic unfurling rather than any sustained excellence.

Tottenham Hotspur

Post 2006/07:

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

1

4

0

1

2

0

0

UCL

Europa League – R16

UEFA CUP – R16, UEFA CUP – R32, Europa League – R16, UCL – QF

N.A.

UEFA CUP – QF

N.A., Europa League – Group Stage

N.A.

N.A.


Inferences:

  1. Beyond R4, 3 times.
  2. In those 3 years they went beyond R16 in UCL 0 times, with 1 UEFA Cup QF berth.
  3. Beyond R6 2 times, with a Europa League Group Stage exit.

Verdict: Despite winning the hallowed trophy on eight occasions, Spurs have performed underwhelmingly in the FA Cup in recent seasons. All their cup runs have been forged without undue distractions, the most notable being the memorable UCL quarterfinal gallop in 2008/09.

Manchester City

Post 2008/09:

FA Cup

R3

R4

R5

R6

Semifinalists

Runners-up

Winners

Frequency

2

0

0

1

0

1

1

UCL

UEFA CUP – QF, UCL – GS and Europa League – R16

N.A.

N.A.

UCL – R16

N.A.

UCL – GS

Europa League last 16

Inferences:

  1. Beyond R4, 3 times.
  2. Beyond R16 in UCL, 0 times.
  3. Beyond R6, 2 times, with a Europa League last 16 placing.

Verdict: The nouveau rich club has been on the receiving end of the vagaries of fate, culminating in repeated curses of the group of death. Stocked with personnel and replenishments aplenty, City have every chance of fighting on multiple fronts in the near future.

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