It is a shame that, this year, the FA Cup has become the competition that best represents the poisonous inequality that cuts through English football like a hot knife through butter. Manchester United and Chelsea sailed through on Saturday, and Arsenal brushed Burnley aside to set up what is likely to be a perfunctory quarter-final against Hull City. We said it last May. Enjoy it while it lasts. The big clubs were left licking their wounds and, on the basis of the evidence of what we have seen in the competition this year, resolved never to let this happen again. We have, therefore, the top, second and fifth placed teams in the Premier League in the semi-finals of the competition, with the fourth placed team likely to join them.
On Saturday evening, there was a thoroughly dispiriting display at Craven Cottage. Fulham have performed reasonably well in the Premier League this season, and sit in tenth place in the table. No realistic chance of making the UEFA Cup next season, but unlikely to get too drawn into the relegation battle that seems likely to fall like a heavy cloud over the bottom half of the table over the next few weeks or so. This, however, was a massacre. Fulham pressed effectively in the opening stages, but when Carlos Tevez gave United the lead the sound of deflation was almost audible. United seized the initiative and killed the game stone dead. Fifteen minutes later, Tevez added a second, a wonderful strike into the top left hand corner of the net and from then on it was merely a matter of how many United would go on to win by. Rooney added a third and Park the fourth to make the game safe.
Such was the onesidedness of this match that it was, frankly, an embarrassment. This, after all, was not some plucky lower division challengers taking on the European champions and giving it everything they had. This was tenth in the Premier League against top of the Premier League. In this respect, ITV Sport were right to pick it as their featured live match. It was, in any respect, no “contest”. There is no embarrassment in this result for Fulham. They were, to put it simply, hopelessly out of their depth against a team that was absolutely in control. The rest of the competition appears to be almost pre-ordained. If Hull City were to sneak past Arsenal in their delayed quarter-final match, they will face a Chelsea team which has rediscovered its grit and determination (if not necessarily its sparkle and wit), followed by Everton or (more likely) Manchester United in the final.
It’s not the “fault” of the FA Cup. Various commentators have suggested tinkering with the format of the competition to try and boost its appeal, but it’s difficult to see how, say, scrapping replays would make any difference. The most significant effect of this would be cut off much of the opportunity for smaller clubs to make money from replays against bigger sides. The fault runs much deeper than this. It lies with everyone that has created this colossal divide between rich and poor and turned our game into a scramble for cash in which most of the contestants have at least one of their arms tied behind their backs. For this season, the FA Cup is likely to be a mere trinket – a minor consolation at the end of a year of disappointment for Chelsea or Arsenal, or the second or third least important in Manchester United’s quest for global domination.