The FA Cup has reached its most tantalising of stages: all teams left in the hat know they are just 90 minutes from a showpiece Wembley occasion. And no, we don’t mean an away game against Tottenham.
Even with the Football Association doing their best to cheapen the competition, there is still some magic left in English football’s premier knockout cup with the quarter-finals; you only had to witness Rochdale’s enthralling game against Spurs on Sunday to get a sense of that.
And for punters, of course, opportunity knocks in an age of weakened teams and league action taking priority.
So how are the quarter-finals of the oldest cup competition in world football shaping up?
Leicester City vs Chelsea FA Cup Quarter-Final
Chelsea are a seven-time FA Cup winner so their pedigree in this competition speaks for itself, although you suspect they will face a tough assignment when travelling to the East Midlands to take on Leicester City in the last eight.
Claude Puel guided his previous employer Southampton to the final of the EFL Cup 12 months or so ago, and he is clearly a manager that understands the importance of a run in the domestic cup competitions. The Foxes boss picked what was, essentially, his strongest available starting eleven in the win over Sheffield United in the last 16 – including a recall for Riyad Mahrez, who made his first start since being put in the naughty corner for requesting a move away from the club in January.
Ironically it was at this stage of the FA Cup last season that Antonio Conte started to take the competition seriously, fielding a strong starting eleven to see off Manchester United. They were in the midst of a successful title challenge then, of course, so don’t expect the Blues to take this one lightly.
But what is interesting is that this fixture will take place just a couple of days after Chelsea travel to Barcelona to compete in their Champions League last 16 second leg. Assuming that Conte has to play a weakened team here, does that put the ball in the Foxes’ court?
Leicester haven’t appeared in an FA Cup semi-final for more than 30 years, and they have never beaten Chelsea in this competition; a seven-match run which dates back to 1920. Can Mahrez and co upset the history books?
Manchester United vs Brighton FA Cup Quarter-Final
One team with a rich heritage in the FA Cup meets another with very little to call upon at Old Trafford in the last eight, and the home side will be hoping to extend their successful run in this competition.
Manchester United have appeared in a whopping 19 FA Cup finals, winning 12 of them, and in Jose Mourinho they possess a manager who has a fine history in lifting domestic cup trophies. He has an FA Cup and an EFL Cup to his name in England, plus Copa Del Rey, Coppa Italia and Taca de Portugal success on the continent too – confirming that the ‘Special One’ takes these competitions seriously.
Perhaps the most prestigious occasion in Brighton’s history was reaching the FA Cup final in 1983; on that occasion they lost to Manchester United at the ‘old’ Wembley.
The Seagulls have adapted to life in the top flight very nicely this term, and drew plaudits for their performance in narrowly going down 0-1 to the Red Devils in November.
But you suspect that United are a stronger side now than they were back then, with Alexis Sanchez joining the club in a headline-making move from Arsenal in the winter transfer window. That, coupled with Mourinho’s penchant for picking up domestic trophies, makes the hosts a worthy favourite with the bookmakers here.
Swansea or Sheffield Wednesday vs Tottenham or Rochdale
Both of these last 16 ties ended in stalemate, meaning replays will be needed to separate the protagonists and reveal the identity of the two teams who will battle it out for a semi-final berth.
The fixture between Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday has been given added significance by the movements of manager Carlos Carvahal, who left the latter in December to join the former’s Premier League survival bid. And it’s been a case of so far, so good, having guided the Swans from a position of jeopardy at the bottom of the table to the slightly-less perilous sixteenth.
Carvahal can always be relied upon to deliver an amusing soundbite, and after scouring the transfer market for small fry in the January window – “I will do my best to try and bring in the best players. I will look to the lobsters and sea bass, but if not we must buy sardines. But sometimes the sardines can win games,” – his latest pearl of wisdom came in comparing the rigour of FA Cup replays to the Police Academy series of films: ‘first there is one and then there is too many.’ You can kind of see what he’s on about.
The Portuguese boss was given a warm reception on his return to Hillsborough as he brought with him a Swansea side containing six changes to that which beat Burnley last time out. That gives an indication that the league, rather than the cup, remains his top priority.
Carvahal’s successor at Sheffield Wednesday, Jos Luhukay, is yet to stamp his authority on his new employer. He has won just three of his ten games in charge, with five of those finishing 0-0. That should give punters a good indication of how this replay will pan out.
The winner will enjoy home advantage against either Tottenham or Rochdale, the plucky League One outfit who held the Premier League giants to an entertaining 2-2 draw.
The replay will take place at Wembley – what a fantastic day out for the Rochdale fans and players, but their party will surely be pooped by a Spurs side that that has been near faultless on home soil so far this season.
Wigan or Manchester City vs Southampton
The last of the fifth-round fixtures takes place on Monday evening, with League One pacesetters Wigan welcoming Manchester City to their DW Stadium home.
It’s a huge occasion for the Latics, who have already knocked out a pair of Premier League sides in West Ham and Bournemouth, although as we know Manchester City are operating on a wholly different plain to anybody else in English football right now.
Pep Guardiola can make changes to his City side and still field an exceptional starting eleven, such is the depth of the squad at his disposal, and this may just be one hurdle too far for the League One outfit.
Should the Citizens progress as expected, they will meet Southampton in the quarter-finals. The Saints are, surprisingly, ensconced in the Premier League’s relegation zone at present, and so clearly top-flight survival has to be their priority.
Having won only one of their last nine matches against City, Southampton’s best hope of reaching the semi-finals of this competition is to hope and pray that Guardiola fields a severely-weakened side here. But with an international break immediately following the FA Cup quarter finals – giving his players crucial rest time – that seems unlikely.