It remains the heaviest defeat of Khaldoon Al Mubarak’s Manchester City ownership. A 5-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge featured five teenage full debutants in an FA Cup fifth-round surrender. Willy Caballero, Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis and Aleksandar Kolarov all started and Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling were part of the squad, but it was described by the national media as ‘a childish strop’ and an ‘abhorrent’ show of disrespect.
Manuel Pellegrini’s excuse was that his side had already played three Premier League games that month, with a League Cup final against Liverpool the following week and a Champions League trip to Ukraine to face Dynamo Kiev wedged in between. City had asked for the Chelsea tie to be moved forward a day; the request was denied.
The next season, Bournemouth treated their second FA Cup campaign as a Premier League club as a rite of passage: they made 11 changes in a 3-0 FA Cup third-round defeat to League One side Millwall and had one shot on target.
“I am not downplaying the FA Cup or the importance of the competition,” said Eddie Howe. The Daily Mail scoffed, saying that ‘the FA Cup often bites those who disrespect it’. The manager later conceded that “in hindsight with the result, I regret the changes”.
Just last week, Watford travelled to Tranmere for a rescheduled tie on Thursday, with the winner facing Manchester United at home three days later. It was a ludicrous, if unavoidable turnaround, one that hardly aided either’s fight for survival in their domestic leagues.
The Hornets made 11 changes. Nigel Pearson described it as “a steep learning curve for some of our young players” – although Christian Kabasele, Jose Holebas and Andre Gray all started.
These three separate incidents have two common strands: each represent what was then the latest in a long and unremitting line of setbacks suffered by the world’s oldest national football tournament, gradually chipping away at its prestige. But at least the respective managers considered it important enough to take their place in the dugout.
The same cannot be said for Jurgen Klopp. Talk of the FA Cup suffering ‘blows’ has become as tiresome as discussions over its unquantifiable levels of magic, but his insistence that he will not even take charge of Liverpool’s replay against Shrewsbury is the most damning indictment of this competition’s standing since the holders withdrew from their own defence at the turn of the millennium.
The mitigation for Manchester United in 2000 was that it was at the FA’s request, with a view to boosting England’s 2006 World Cup bid. But Liverpool are the passive aggressive boyfriend who is stubbornly taking everything their partner says entirely literally.
“The Premier League asked us to respect the winter break. That’s what we do,” Klopp said on Sunday. “If the FA doesn’t respect that, then we cannot change it. We will not be there.”
It is childish, it is pathetic, it is immature. It is a cheap point-scoring exercise that realistically serves the interests of no-one.
There are players in the first-team squad who need minutes. Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Fabinho and Takumi Minamino would benefit far more from an extra game than another fortnight on the sidelines. The replay will be Liverpool’s 41st game of the season and Shrewsbury’s 39th. If one of those sides cannot accommodate another match it should be the team in League One, not the runaway Premier League leaders.
There was at least a valid excuse when Neil Critchley was charged with taking the Reds into battle against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup last month. All avenues had been considered, all routes examined, all alternatives exhausted. Liverpool deserved sympathy then but opprobrium now.
There is a degree of understanding attached to their decision. Recent history is littered with examples of teams fielding a reserve side or one made up of academy players because of fixture congestion. The Championship is starting to follow the suit of the Premier League. And Pellegrini, Howe and Pearson barely scratch the surface; Klopp named weakened sides for his first FA Cup game in a draw with Exeter in 2016, then against Plymouth in the third round the following year.
It is interesting, however, to recall the German saying “you do not want to feel the embarrassment of losing a game like this” when Liverpool scraped through a replay in that second game.
Times have changed, even in those three short years. Liverpool have far greater priorities, more precarious plates to spin. No-one is advocating for them to name a full-strength side against Shrewsbury, but it would be nice if Liverpool’s manager at least saw fit to manage whatever team is fielded.
There is no possible argument for Klopp not to be in charge. Liverpool are not embarking on a warm-weather mid-season trip to sunnier climes. Even if the manager deems the ‘winter break’ sacrosanct in terms of his squad, why is it important for Klopp himself to sit it out?
The phrase ‘winter break’ is a misnomer in itself, of course – a pathetic attempt at offering an olive branch that was liable to snap at any given moment. A two-week break in the middle of February does nothing to alleviate the actual issue of a season that either starts too late or ends too early and requires teams to play more than a quarter of their domestic league campaign – and two cup competitions – over December and January.
A solution that ensures every single weekend from the opening day on August 9 to the final round on May 17 has some form of domestic club or international fixture on television is no solution. It’s baffling and irresponsible.
But that is no longer the battle Klopp has chosen to fight. His arguments against the schedule have been compelling, his quest to serve the interests of the players instead of TV companies admirable, his desire to effect genuine change commendable. Most notable has been his consistency on the issue. But using his current platform and status in this childish way undermines all that.
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