If Manchester City are to pull off an unlikely quadruple, it’s perhaps surprising to suggest that a week of back-to-back home fixtures against Burnley and Bristol City could be pivotal.
With City 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League and the Champions League six weeks from restarting, the focus this week switches to the domestic cup competitions.
In theory, they were the two easiest competitions to win at the start of the season. But priorities have changed — particularly on the back of a tiring Christmas period that has tested even a big squad like Pep Guardiola’s to the full. The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach has never tried to win four competitions in the same season and admits he’s not sure if his squad can cope with trying to challenge on four fronts.
“I am worried about that. We have to handle four competitions and I don’t know if we are able to do that,” he said at the end of December.
With City one step away from Wembley in the Carabao Cup and facing Championship side Bristol City in a two-legged semifinal, the FA Cup would now appear to be the lowest priority for the club.
The Champions League is undoubtedly the hardest to win and Guardiola insists they are not the favourites to succeed in the competition for the first time in the club’s history despite their brilliant form in the Premier League and Europe this season. But he wants to make progress in the Champions League and, after being paired in the round of 16 with Swiss side FC Basel, they are very much expected to reach the quarterfinals.
European demands step up dramatically in April with potentially two last-eight and two semifinal legs in the space of 30 days during a month when they already face crucial Premier League games against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
Games against Brighton and Swansea would have to be arranged if City made it to the last four in the FA Cup and in an absolute worst-case scenario where every tie possible goes to a replay, they would face nine games just to reach the final.
It would concertina a hectic final month with no room for extending a season that has a World Cup immediately after in the summer. Which is why that must surely make the FA Cup the least important for City — although Guardiola won’t allow his players to give up on trying to win every competition they enter.
The Catalan will probably make plenty of changes for the FA Cup clash with Burnley on Saturday, with Kevin De Bruyne, Nicolas Otamendi, Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho among those rested after playing virtually every minute during a period of four games in 10 days.
It’s not an easy draw and certainly not inconceivable that they could get knocked out at the earliest stage, particularly as they face Premier League opponents that have gone to Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and United this season and not lost at any of them.
But the competition is hardly a priority either for Burnley, who are currently seventh and homing in on their best league finish in 44 years.
Clarets boss Sean Dyche made six changes for their third-round tie with Sunderland last season in a game that went to a replay. They eventually made it to the fifth round where they were embarrassingly beaten by non-league Lincoln City at Turf Moor.
It won’t be an easy competition to win. While Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham are all safely into the round of 16 of the Champions League, the FA Cup represents their best opportunity for silverware this season.
It will become clearer how serious Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are taking the tournament after their third-round ties but it’s likely to be far more serious for them than Guardiola, who has a far more pragmatic approach than those getting carried by City’s brilliant form.
“That is not going to happen,” was his response when asked about a possible quadruple. “Of course not, that is unreal — what we are living is unreal. That is not going to happen.”
But talk of the impossible dream isn’t going to go away if City can squeeze past Burnley and Bristol City.
Jonathan is ESPN FC’s Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.