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FA Cup lustre fades as top teams shroud their stars

BeSoccer by BeSoccer @besoccer_com - 0 983

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Players warm up for the FA Cup third round match between Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace. AFP

Heavy squad rotation and dwindling attendances over the third-round weekend suggested the FA Cup, once the jewel in the crown of English football, is locked in a downward spiral.

The FA Cup is the game's oldest knockout competition, dating back 146 years, and boasts a history rich with famous upsets and unforgettable finals.

But it is increasingly seen as an inconvenience for the big teams, for whom Champions League qualification is all-important, while financial concerns mean league position is the top priority for many smaller clubs.

"The FA Cup is a great competition, but there are other priorities now," said Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock, whose side lost 2-1 to second-tier rivals Fulham.

"A club like ours cannot afford to go down."

The FA Cup final was once the only match shown live on British television and the tournament's third round - when top-flight teams enter the competition - has produced some memorable shocks.

But in recent times the glamour clubs have made their priorities clear by fielding weakened teams in order to keep their leading players fresh for more important challenges ahead.

The Premier League's leading scorers, Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez, did not see even a second of action in the FA Cup at the weekend.

Premier League leaders Chelsea, FA Cup holders Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur each made nine changes to their teams and although they all progressed, other top-tier sides came unstuck.

Bournemouth - now of the Premier League, but who stunned Manchester United as Third Division underdogs in 1984 - lost 3-0 at third-tier Millwall after manager Eddie Howe changed his entire starting XI.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, selected the club's youngest ever team - with an average age of 21 years and 296 days - and saw them taken to a replay by fourth-tier Plymouth Argyle.

Football Association chief executive Martin Glenn defended the big sides' right to make changes, saying blooding young players was "not a bad thing".

The sense of disinterest was reflected in the attendances, which were largely down on the average crowds for league games.

Just 17,632 fans turned up to watch Sunderland draw 0-0 against top-flight rivals Burnley at the Stadium of Light, which habitually hosts crowds of close to 42,000.

And only 5,199 people watched Cardiff (average attendance 16,414) lose to Fulham in a match that kicked off at the inconvenient hour of 11:30 GMT.

It was a different story for the competition's minnows, however, showing the FA Cup continues to hold special meaning for those sides closer to the base of the English football pyramid than the top.

Non-league Sutton United, who pulled off a famous upset against Coventry City in 1989, saw their attendance leap from an average of 1,518 to 5,200 for their 0-0 draw at home to third-tier AFC Wimbledon.

It was a similar story for their National League (fifth-tier) rivals Barrow, who lost 2-0 to Rochdale.

Lincoln City, another non-league team, secured a creditable 2-2 draw at second-tier Ipswich Town, while Plymouth's 0-0 draw at Liverpool was celebrated like a win by their large army of travelling fans.

Publicly funded national broadcaster the BBC was criticised for televising live games involving Manchester City and Tottenham instead of shining a light on the competition's underdogs.

"We were devastated not to be picked," said Sutton manager Paul Doswell. "(The TV money) could have half-built changing rooms for the kids."

It has been suggested the FA Cup would become more attractive to the leading teams if the winners were rewarded with a Champions League place.

But Wimbledon manager Neal Ardley believes a change in broadcasters' priorities could help restore the competition to something approaching its former glories.

"They are missing the point," he said.

"There is a chance with the cup to come away from the (Premier League) top six. To the teams outside the top two divisions, it is a big deal."

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