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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

FA Cup quarter-finals: Manchester United's Jose Mourinho among top managers in hunt for consolation prize

Like in Mourinho's case, spotlight on Chelsea's Antonio Conte and Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino to win a trophy this season

Jose Mourinho may be mutating into a cup specialist, having won two knockout competitions last season. Oli Scarff / AFP
Jose Mourinho may be mutating into a cup specialist, having won two knockout competitions last season. Oli Scarff / AFP

Jose Mourinho was trying to be philosophical. He was aiming to rationalise his disappointment.

Manchester United had just been ejected from the Uefa Champions League. Their sole chance of silverware this season would be in the FA Cup.

"A fantastic team like Tottenham has to do exactly the same as us,” the Portuguese argued.

Twenty-four hours later, another parallel was provided. Chelsea also exited Europe. They also run the risk of seeing their chances of a trophy disappear in a damaging week.

In contrast, as Mourinho pointed out, England’s two representatives in the Champions League are not competing for the consolation prize. "Liverpool has the Champions League but doesn't have the FA Cup,” he said, though that may not soothe the feelings of United supporters annoyed by their wretched display against Sevilla.

Nor do Manchester City.

Three of England’s big six have beat surprising exits from the FA Cup – City losing to Wigan, Liverpool to West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal to Nottingham Forest – and the others can eye what should be easier paths to success.

The FA Cup could be branded a season-salvaging exercise, or at least a face-saving one. Especially, perhaps for Mourinho.

United are on course for their highest finish since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Yet the 16-point gulf to City means second place cannot be celebrated. Nor, given United’s failed blueprint and dreadful display against Sevilla, their Champions League campaign.

Perhaps, Mourinho is mutating into a cup specialist, as his powers seem to wane and as his almost annual habit of collecting league titles becomes more infrequent. He won two knockout competitions last season, in the League Cup and the Europa League.

If the FA Cup would complete a set of the less prestigious tournaments, it would also enable him to match last season’s combination of Champions League qualification and securing an honour. Given his storied past, it would nonetheless feel underwhelming.

United merit a billing as favourites and only partly because they host Brighton whereas Tottenham Hotspur visit Swansea City and Chelsea go to Leicester City.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte will be under pressure to win a trophy this season. Susana Vera / Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte will be under pressure to win a trophy this season. Susana Vera / Reuters

Mourinho has a solitary FA Cup to his name, but Mauricio Pochettino is famously awaiting a first managerial honour and Antonio Conte, that specialist in dominating leagues, has been strangely unable to win a domestic cup.

If Mourinho is looking for a variant on his achievements last year, Conte could emulate the Portuguese’s predecessor.

In 2016, Louis van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup. It was not enough to keep him employed, with Truus van Gaal reading reports of her husband’s departure and informing him at Wembley. It put something of a dampener on the mood.

Conte’s summer exit last long looked probable. Regaining their top-four status in the next two months matters more for the club. Lifting the FA Cup would at least give the manager something tangible to put on his CV after a fractious season.

Tottenham have no honour since 2008. Their drought predated Pochettino’s arrival. And yet, if all of that ought to mean their need is most pressing, the opposite may be true.

Tottenham’s Champions League loss to a fine Juventus team was more excusable than United’s elimination at the hands of a Sevilla side with a negative goal difference in the Primera Liga. The rather more harmonious atmosphere between manager, players, powerbrokers and fans that Pochettino has engineered means Spurs’ season has felt less tempestuous than Conte’s and Chelsea’s.

Yet while reaching the quarter-final is no feat for Tottenham, who have faced AFC Wimbledon, Newport County and Rochdale and twice been taken to a replay, Pochettino may be in the best position. Mourinho is under more scrutiny, Conte under more pressure.

He has less to lose than them and more to gain.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur have yet to win silverware. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur have yet to win silverware. Matthew Childs / Reuters

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