With a bit of late, a quirk of fate and a touch of genius, the 16 teams left in the FA Cup are just 180 minutes away from a day out at Wembley Stadium in the semi-finals and 270 from a tilt at winning the oldest cup competition in club football.
For some of the sides still left in the hat, the FA Cup is either an unwelcome distraction or merely an opportunity to give the kids and the reserves a run-out; progress is then in the hands of the players.
But for others, the romance of the cup still lives large, and of course the financial rewards for progressing from round to round also come in handy.
This season’s FA Cup looks set for an enjoyable denouement for a variety of reasons; not least the eclectic cast of teams left in the competition. At this fifth round stage there are no all-Premier League encounters – that must be a first – and so there will be ample opportunities for giants to be slayed by the varying degrees of underdog they will do battle with this weekend.
So who will book their place in the quarter-finals….just one win away from a Wembley showpiece?
David Takes Down Goliath?
If you were cynical about whether the FA Cup actually means anything anymore, just take a look at the draw for the last 16. You’ve got five of the biggest six clubs in the land – Manchesters City and United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – and they are joined by minnows in the form of Sutton United and Lincoln City. Elsewhere, there are a number of Football League sides awaiting their moment in the spotlight.
So all of the top flight sides taking to the field this weekend will have some level of pressure and expectation on their shoulders; whether it is to avoid immense embarrassment (Arsenal and Burnley, who take on Sutton and Lincoln respectively), or to see off the advances of a side who could potentially beat them (Middlesbrough, Leicester and Tottenham tackle Oxford, Millwall and Fulham).
There are so many reasons to savour this cup weekend, although for a couple of managers it could be one to forget. Will Arsene Wenger and Claudio Ranieri live to see another game if they suffer humiliating defeats?
In the Lions’ Den
It is Ranieri who looks particularly vulnerable. The Italian got the dreaded vote of confidence from the Leicester board last week, and we all know that in football you can’t always take people’s word to the bank. An embarrassing defeat to League One Millwall here could well spell the end for the likeable gaffer.
But would it be such a surprise? Ranieri has already confirmed he will play a much-changed side in this match ahead of his side’s Champions League date at Sevilla, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Millwall will be up for it on home soil.
The atmosphere at the New Den can be intimidating at the best of times, but here it looks set to reach fever pitch. These Lions sense blood….
Neil Harris’ men have won each of their last three matches, and their league record at home – W9 D4 L3 – does little to dissuade us from the notion that Millwall are by far and away the best bet amongst the underdogs in the FA Cup fifth round. The price of 2/1 on a home win does not do them a disservice at all.