Did Manuel Pellegrini's under-strength Manchester City devalue the FA Cup?
LONDON -- They were poetic words from Guus Hiddink that more than lived up to the history of the FA Cup; but, much more relevantly, didn't really fit the nature of the freakish match everyone had just watched. At the end of a full Chelsea team's predictable 5-1 fifth-round win over a drastically changed -- and very young -- Manchester City, the Dutch coach described the competition as a "temple of football".
"It's beautiful," Hiddink said. "We must be careful not to devalue this."
Those comments were not intended as a dig at his opposing manager Manuel Pellegrini, although they could easily have been construed as such. The Manchester City coach's prematch comments that this was not a "real game" due to the effects of unfair fixture scheduling were proven right, even if he did an awful lot to ensure they were by throwing in so many youth graduates on for their debuts at once.
That also ensured the real significance of this game was not really related to what happened on the pitch, as it threw up so many other issues.
The first is what the performances actually means given the context, particularly Chelsea's ongoing resurgence. The second is how justifiable Pellegrini's decisions were, and the third is about the relevance of the FA Cup itself -- whether it has long been "devalued" beyond the point of any return.
The irony to all of this was that City's six teenage starters -- five of whom were making their full debuts -- actually came out of the game with real credit, especially goal scorer David Faupala. He showed a fine touch in setting up that move to feed Kelechi Iheanacho, and then admirable desire to get in and be first to the return ball to score.
It was difficult to criticise any of Aleix Garcia, Tosin Adarabioyo, Bersant Celina, Manu Garcia or substitutes Brandon Barker and Cameron Humphreys-Grant, either. Instead, it was the available senior players, and Pellegrini himself, who were most culpable.
You only had to look at the 35th-minute opening goal. Pablo Zabaleta didn't know where Eden Hazard was in the box with the ball and the Belgian was able to easily pick out Diego Costa to head in, after the striker had been inexplicably left with yards of space between Martin Demichelis and Aleksandr Kolarov. Stand-in goalkeeper Willy Caballaro then set the tone for a chaotic individual display, flapping at a ball going past him. Ninety poor minutes of goalkeeping certainly didn't suggest the one moment of brilliance when he saved Oscar's second-half penalty.
Unsurprisingly, that foul on Bertrand Traore was committed by Demichelis, who had a particularly poor game and certainly didn't lead by example. He did lead with his foot, taking out Hazard with one awful lunge at the edge of the box that suggested a player not quite up to the pace anymore.
As regards Hazard and the rest of the Chelsea team, it's hard to know how much stock to put in this resurgence, given the state of their past two domestic opponents: a young City and a uniquely poor Newcastle, who were both beaten 5-1.
The Belgian offered two assists and one precise free-kick goal on Sunday. They almost doubled his productivity return for the season, as he took the tallies to five assists and two goals.
That's rather easy when a player has as much space as Hazard did here, however. Cesc Fabregas looked similarly brilliant, considering he had as much freedom in midfield as he did in last Saturday's game against Newcastle.
Performances like this will probably help with confidence and a sense of momentum, while giving Chelsea the breathing room to gradually recover their sharpness, but the midweek Champions League defeat to Paris Saint-Germain showed they are still some way off that type of application at the top level.
"If you have a rather OK performance," Hiddink continued, "not more than that, regarding the game in Paris, today against Man City, it's a boost in confidence for the players."
Of course, it is the Champions League -- or, rather, the ludicrous English regulations that see City unnecessarily play an FA Cup game just three days before an awkward trip to Dynamo Kiev -- that meant Pellegrini picked such a downscaled side in the first place. He also reminded everyone he only had 13 main squad players fit, so was forced to arrange his team to fit the circumstances.
In that sense, his decision was largely justifiable, even if Pellegrini admitted that it was "maybe not the best thing" to play so many young players at once.
What was less justifiable was the way the City manager framed all of this. It wasn't exactly a display of belief in his young players to talk so abrasively about how this would not be a "real match" in the buildup. He could still have complained about the fixture issues while maybe talking up his young players more. It might have done more for their confidence.
Then there was the argument over devaluing the competition. Pellegrini claimed he was not prioritising the Champions League over the FA Cup, even though it was impossible to come to any other conclusion. It seems highly unlikely he will play this team in Kiev in just three days' time, despite the injuries now.
Again, the issue is not the team he picked. It's the way he spun it.
It all adds to the apparent double-think about the FA Cup as a whole. Most people in the game pay lip service to its glory and talk about its history, only for their actions to indicate something else entirely -- especially with weakened teams.
The next step of the debate arose this weekend, and has been about the staging of replays. There are very few days in the calendar -- due to the UEFA rules -- that domestic matches cannot be played at the same time as Champions League fixtures, and that has only led to the increase of this antipathy toward the competition. It does seem like the only way to remove this resentment, and recharge the FA Cup, is to rearrange the calendar, make more games midweek and remove replays altogether.
The grand irony, of course, is that the FA Cup means more for the Premier League champions than almost anyone else. It can rescue their season, even if they were unlucky to be drawn with a tough sixth-round tie away to Everton.
Hiddink said after this game "there is not much left in the league for Chelsea, to be honest" and his actions certainly backed his words. He played a full senior team and, as if to add another twist to it all and demonstrate the completeness of Chelsea's own display, the last goal of the match was scored by another youth graduate. Traore made it two in two games, with a looping header, adding to strikes by Willian and Gary Cahill.
Just as an established Chelsea side have long wanted an injection of homegrown youth in their team, the odd nature of this specific tie perhaps proved that one of the oldest cup competitions in the world could do with some new perspectives -- not least with the schedule of games. That needs to be changed.
The timing, in that regard, has never been better.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.