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Premier League priorities hurt the FA Cup but the magic can remain

Wanted for the attempted murder of the FA Cup: Premier League managers, who made wholesale changes for third-round ties, only to discover their reserve players are simply not good enough.

Arsene Wenger really should know better, having won the competition a record seven times, and has little excuse for Arsenal's shambolic loss to mid-table Championship team Nottingham Forest, who were the better side by an embarrassing margin.

Even if fielding a depleted team was excusable with a Carabao Cup semifinal first leg coming up in midweek, why did Wenger not take out the insurance policy of putting big hitters like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil on the bench, instead of more kids?

The veteran manager's sheepish demeanour in post-match interviews suggested he knew he had dropped an almighty clanger and it is hard to see where Arsenal's season goes next. Chelsea stand in their way in the League Cup, they are outside the top four in the Premier League and they might have to start taking the Europa League campaign more seriously.

On top of all that, the Gunners don't seem to know whether to field a three- or four-man defence and face losing Sanchez and Ozil for nothing unless they sell them this month. All of which must make the Arsenal board wonder if they made the right decision in handing Wenger a new two-year deal last summer.

Elsewhere in the FA Cup, Chelsea made nine changes at Norwich and produced a lamentable festival of misplaced passes, in which none of their squad players advanced the cause for further playing time. A replay was the most that Antonio Conte's men deserved.

Bournemouth, admittedly with a relegation fight on their hands, also made nine changes and got played off the park for 45 minutes by third-tier table toppers Wigan Athletic, whose manager Paul Cook ought to be on the short list for a bigger job soon. Eddie Howe's team needed a 92nd-minute equaliser to earn a replay. So all they achieved -- like Chelsea -- was adding a further unwanted game to their schedule.

Even harder to understand was Claude Puel's decision to make eight Leicester changes for the visit to another third-tier outfit, Fleetwood. Leicester are eighth in the Premier League and are not going down. The FA Cup is the only trophy they can win, yet they played a depleted team and were held to a goalless draw. If I was a fan of the club, I would be tearing my hair out at that kind of logic.

People will argue that the FA Cup is not what it was and that the regular players needed a rest after the hectic festive period.

But, while it was risking injury to ask some clubs to play twice in three days over New Year, the truth is most top-flight clubs don't play enough; their 38-game season is a walk in the park compared to the workload of Football League sides, who have to play 46 with thinner squads.

Managers will tell you that they have to give fringe players a game somewhere and the FA Cup is an ideal opportunity, but that is a thin argument if the reserves get clubs knocked out.

Too many are forgetting that football is still a glory game. That means winning trophies and exciting fans, or at least making a very bold effort to do so. What will players remember most when telling their grandchildren about their career: Winning the FA Cup or finishing fourth?

There were some exceptions. Southampton are struggling in the league but fielded a near full-strength team for a tricky tie at Fulham and were rewarded with a 1-0 win. Likewise, Newcastle gave maximum respect to League Two hotshots Luton, who took 7,000 fans to St James' Park. Rafa Benitez wants to give the fans some silverware and his team did the job 3-1.

Mark Hughes knew he needed a good result at Coventry and went with a fairly strong line-up, but such is Stoke's current disarray that they were still knocked out by the fourth-tier outfit. It was the final straw for Hughes, who was fired after the game.

At the heart of the problem is that membership of the Premier League is so lucrative that clubs are terrified to drop out. Sadly, that has turned the FA Cup into something of a sideshow. But the famous old competition refuses to lie down or go away and still produces some of the stories of the season, as well as a stage for talented lower-league players and managers.

At a stroke, the competition could be revived by rewarding the winners with England's fourth Champions League place. But don't hold your breath waiting for that one.