15 February 2015

Who we play and how we play: the chicken, the eggs, and the basket.

It was looking more and more like a clearing of the decks for us, what with heavy hitters like Chelsea, Tottenham, and Man City already knocked out of the FA Cup, Man U needing a replay to overcome League 2 Cambridge, and Liverpool on the ropes against Crystal Palace. Man U made it through, of course, and will face Preston on Monday, and Liverpool found a way past Palace, and it's possible that three of the Prem's top seven could advance to the sixth round. Rather than counting chickens before they've hatched, though, we have a match of our own to deal with against Middlesbrough. It might have been comforting to learn that Liverpool had gone down in flames at Selhurst Park, but their result matters not whit until we earn ours—and perhaps not even then.

We've seen just how unpredictable the Cup can be, whether it's Middlesbrough themselves seeing off mighty Man City at the Etihad, Leicester beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane, or Bradford beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That last one might come as the biggest surprise, bigger even than Man U's struggles against Cambridge, because it came in the fourth round, by which point most Prem sides are willing to commit full-strength sides to the fray. For as much schadenfreude as we might take from such setbacks for our rivals, the strategic aftermath is less-measurable. Yes, on paper, facing Crystal Palace might have been preferable to facing Liverpool, but these calculations mean little. Rather than placing all of our hopes on the notion that other clubs will do our dirty work by knocking of our Prem rivals and then roll over for us when the time is right, we should put on a pair of blinders and focus single-mindedly on the task ahead.

Anyone who thinks Middlesbrough will be content to show up, swap a jersey, and go on home to regale the countrified rubes with tales of city-slickers and their sissified ways might want to shut their fat yaps and think again. We of all clubs would do well to remember our own history in this and other knock-outs when we've shown ourselves to be perfectly capable of being undone by "lesser" sides. Yes, a season ago saw us steam-roll Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton on our way to winning it all, but along the way, Wigan and Hull very nearly upended the entire apple-cart.

Instead of wondering about results elsewhere and who's through to the next round, then, we'd do far-better to focus on playing football to the levels we're capable of. When we're on our game, it almost doesn't matter who we face—witness the confident dismantling of Man City at the Etihad a few weeks ago, or a similarly thorough victory over Borussia "we're commiting everything to the Champions League because, well, Bayern" Dortmund. When we play to that level, we can count ourselves among the elite. Not on a par with Bayern, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, of course, but we're are least in their neck of the woods.

On the other hand, we've also shown that we can play down to the competition or situation with the worst of them. Three first-half goals conceded to Stoke in a 3-2 loss. Three second-half goals conceded to Anderlecht in a 3-3 draw. At home. If we show up in any resembling the squad that played that ninety minutes of football, well, we can watch the sixth-round draw with curious detachment, because we won't be in it. If we can rise to anything resembling the level that saw us eviscerate Aston Villa or pick apart Man City, well, it won't matter whether we're facing Middlesbrough or Real Madrid on Sunday. Well, that might stretch things just a little, but you get my point, I hope.

With the Prem race all but the exclusive domain of Chelsea or Man City, and the Champions League a distant dream, we have to know that the FA Cup represents our best and perhaps only chance at silverware. At a risk of undermining the entire point of this post, Middlesbrough have to wonder whether they can commit resources to chasing the FA Cup when they're locked in the thick of a fierce fight to win the Championship (and the revenue that comes with it). To return to our own business, such issues shouldn't factor into our calculations.

If we show up and play to our abilities, it won't matter who lines up against us. Prove me right, lads. Prove me right.