05 January 2015

So we can have our cake and eat it too...

In a sadistic scheduling that seemed to draw out the drama and the dread of our third-round clash with Hull, we had to wait until most of our chief rivals had already completed their own fixtures. Should any of them crash out, we might be left feeling as if our defense of the title was a bit empty; should Chelsea or Man City or others bow out, it might further diminish the status of the Cup and leave us wondering just why we're trying to so hard. However, Chelsea, Man City, Man U, and Southampton found their way through to the fourth round proper, leaving us to wonder and worry whether we'd join them. It was a rematch drawn up by a Hollywood hack: the cup-holders against their ousted opponents, barely seven months ago. Could Hull go one better than their early 0-2 lead in last season's final and avenge their capitulation?

Thank God, it was not to be as we found an early-ish lead thanks to Per Mertesacker's "I'm-almost-sure-his-eyes-were-open-this-set-piece" header, which found its way in to give us a 1-0 lead twenty minutes in. That alone represented a three-goal swing from the 2014 final, in which Hull had seized that 0-2 lead inside of ten minutes. The early signs were good, and those who have lambasted the BFG (including yours truly) had to consider just how hastily to arrange their apologies. It seems we can have that cake and eat it, as Per's positioning and deensive prowess may continue to worry us even as he delivers the occasional, emphatic, and well-timed goal.

By the time Alexis delivered his own, almost obligatory goal in the 81st minute, the match was well in hand and we could start assessing what this all means. On one hand, it's the kind of result we all need, soothing the jangled nerves that were so chafed after the 2-0 loss to Southampton (more on them later). Whether we can rest assured that all is now sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops is another matter. We've progressed to the fourth round and will learn who we'll face Monday evening, London time. That's where the eating of the cake kicks in.

The having of the cake, for our purposes, is in how the FA Cup might distract and deplenish our rivals. Chelsea, Man U, and Man City are all through to the next round. Tottenham, Liverpool, and West Ham (okay, and Everton) will play Monday or Tuesday, variously, long may they prosper...). In their cases, we might hope for these FA Cup fixtures to distract them and sap them of strength. In the cases of Chelsea and Man City, though, they might set their sights on each other, as they're currently locked on every available measure for leadership of the Prem, and therefore de-emphasize the FA Cup. Man U and West Ham might focus on it as their only realistic chance at silverware. Tottenham, Everton, and Liverpool might have to weigh up their odds in the Europa League. Southampton seem to have split the difference, drawing with Championship-side Ipswich and necessitating a replay at a date to be decided. For as much as we wish all of our rivals well, all the better to congest their fixtures, we'd be remiss not to mention our own progress.

As already mentioned, we're through to the fourth round and will learn who we face soon enough. Here's where the eating the aforementioned cake kicks in. While we might hope for our rivals to progress in order to incur fatigue, bookings, or (Heaven forfend!) injuries, we hope to progress in its own right, ignoring those issues—perhaps blissfully, consdering our roster of walking-wounded.

As it stands, all quibbles aside, we've taken one step towards our most-realistic chance at silverware on the season—barring the collapse of at least two rivals in the Prem and who knows how many in the Champions League. Should we fight our way all the way through the next five matches to successfully defend the title, what might we trade for it? Would winning the FA Cup two years in a row be enough to offset a fifth place finish in the Prem—and a place in the Europa League? Would such a win justify falling out of European competition altogether?

Before these questions can actually be answered, of course, we have a few weeks to ponder who we'll face in the fourth round and who we'll sign in the transfer-window. We'll know more about the former in short order, but something tells me we may have to wait a few weeks before we know about the latter. For now, though, set aside the fulminations and ruminations and just enjoy the result on its face. There will be time enough to sort the options...