Manchester United head into Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur needing to keep their hopes of silverware alive to save their season.
However, Spurs are just as hungry as they aim to end a decade-long wait for a trophy and confirm their consistent improvement under Mauricio Pochettino.
Jose Mourinho’s men tightened their grip on the Premier League runners-up spot this week but a title battle with champions Manchester City never materialised and they limped out of the Champions League in the first knockout stage.
To add to the frustrations of the beleaguered boss, speculation over the future of £89 million ($127 million) midfielder Paul Pogba has dominated headlines in recent weeks.
Often deemed surplus to requirements by Mourinho this season, Pogba showed what he is capable of by scoring twice to help United temporarily delay City’s title party in a thrilling 3-2 Manchester derby win a fortnight ago.
He impressed Mourinho once more in Wednesday’s 2-0 victory at Bournemouth, but in between times was substituted and heavily criticised for his performance in United’s shock defeat against West Brom that gifted the title to City last weekend.
“Top performance. Top performance. Obviously, the performance against City was special, coming with two goals,” said the United boss of Pogba, who was retained in the side despite seven changes.
“But this performance was a very similar level. So top performance. He can do it.”
Mourinho won the League Cup and Europa League in his first season at Old Trafford and even delivering just the FA Cup would be a poor return in the eyes of fans who hoped for a Premier League push this season.
But United have a proud tradition in the competition, with 12 wins in their history, just one behind Arsenal.
Spurs are third on the list with eight FA Cup wins, but haven’t won the trophy since 1991, or any silverware since the League Cup in 2008.
Tottenham are, though, on the brink of qualifying for the Champions League for the third straight season.
– ‘Next level’ –
And Pochettino has always insisted that success in the Premier League and the Champions League is a better gauge of how well his side is progressing.
“If we are capable to win the Premier League and the Champions League it is a moment you say the team has improved and reached the next level,” said the Argentine.
“Until that, win the FA Cup or the League Cup, it will be fantastic for our fans but is not going to move the club to a different level.”
Pochettino is sticking to his guns despite evidence that success in domestic cup competitions has been the stepping stone to greater things for other clubs.
United’s FA Cup victory in 1990 laid the foundation for two decades of sustained success under Alex Ferguson while City’s FA Cup win in 2011 ended a 35-year trophy drought and paved the way for the Premier League title the following year.
Spurs go into the match with a comfortable lead over fifth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League, with the dethroned champions likely to miss out on Champions League football next year.
Antonio Conte, widely expected to be in his final few weeks as Chelsea boss, has a more straightforward-looking task on Sunday against relegation-threatened Southampton, who Chelsea came from 2-0 down to beat 3-2 at St. Mary’s last weekend.
The Italian boss is keen to fill in a surprising gap in his CV — despite repeated league success in Italy and England, he has never won a cup.
Conte has been coy when questioned about his future throughout a troubled season, but he urged his players to play for the fans regardless of his own position at the club.
“I was a player, and the players must play every game, and not for me, but for the club, and for the fans,” Conte said.
“They must have great respect for this badge, they don’t have to play for the coach.”
FA Cup semi-finals
Manchester United v Tottenham (1615 GMT)
Chelsea v Southampton (1400 GMT)
© Agence France-Presse (Additional reporting by John Murphy)