You might call it a case of all or nothing. While Manchester City are hoping to make the FA Cup part of an unprecedented quadruple, Southampton are aiming for just the second major trophy of their history, and the first in 45 years.
Hence Ralph Hassenhuttl has been enthusing to his players about an opportunity to be seized. This Sunday is no mere day out for them, or a “free hit”. The manager has been talking about one of the biggest games in the club’s modern history, and maybe many players’ careers. It may end up meaning the world to them.
That is naturally refreshing when so much of the modern discussion around the FA Cup centres on what it used to mean.
There are instead completely different layers of significance for each of the semi-finalists. That almost makes it as good a quartet as could be hoped for from a purely competitive perspective.
For City, it’s about making history.
For Chelsea, it’s about the future, and Thomas Tuchel setting a landmark for the team.
For Leicester City, it’s about the present, and Brendan Rodgers allowing this talented side to show what they’re worth while maybe re-energising – even saving? – the season.
For Southampton, it could be transcendental. It’s about an achievement an entire generation of supporters have never experienced.
There can be no doubt who it means the most to.
This is also why there is so much on this game for Southampton, and why it isn’t that “free hit” against bigger clubs.
Hassenhuttl has not hid the fact he is staking the club’s season on the FA Cup. It has created some difficulties, given how much their league campaign has been derailed. It has also affected the perception of his performance.
While there had been images of Hassenhuttl as another Jurgen Klopp, many sources say he is much harder with the players than would be expected. That has caused friction at fraught times, such as after the first 9-0 – an amazing sentence in itself.
If you were to take the FA Cup out, and consider the fact they were close to the top of the Premier League table shortly before Christmas, it would be a hugely disappointing season.
There is at least an argument that Hassenhuttl is playing to save his job, as he tries to take the club to new heights. Elimination would make it all feel so drab.
Should they win on Sunday, however, they would be the finalists with the worst form since Crystal Palace in 2016.
Again, it’s all or nothing.
His opponent, Rodgers, is obviously in a very different place but this semi-final does come at a juncture moment in Leicester’s season. After two successive defeats, and particularly the loss at West Ham United, the threat of last year’s fall being repeated is suddenly all too real.
All of that has been sharpened by the controversy of key players attending a party, and breaching Covid protocols. Rodgers took a strong moral position there, all the more so since it weakened his team for that West Ham game.
It may be better in the medium term. Those players now owe their manager a big performance. The side needs a big win. The old trophy itself would meanwhile be a big landmark for the club.
This actually may be the better fixture given the stakes, despite the supposed lesser status of the clubs.
Both City and Chelsea have grander aims this season, but they might be what makes this match even better, and make the FA Cup mean more for them.
For Thomas Tuchel, it feels a first truly exacting game. There is a difference between being able to gradually build form in a series of matches where your club are mostly favourites, and then a sudden-death occasion against a superior team, of similar profile.
That isn’t to say elimination to City would reflect badly on Tuchel, but it would perhaps be a deeper indication of progress as they develop hopes of winning the Champions League.
Victory over Pep Guardiola’s side would mean much more than even that over a faltering Atletico Madrid. We are going to see more of what Tuchel’s Chelsea are made of.
On the other side, it feels among the first true obstacles in City’s quest for this quadruple; the first very good team they’ve played beyond Manchester United in the League Cup. Victory could propel them further in everything else; elimination may see them falter.
Only charging that is the changed nature of the fixtures. The very energy and competitiveness of FA Cup games go up a few levels once the final, and the trophy, is in sight.
You can see what it really means.
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