Whether or not you believe the magic of the cup still exists (it’s a bit like a child outgrowing Santa), there can be no doubt that one of English football’s oldest competitions still holds a place dear in the hearts of many.
For some clubs it is an unwanted distraction; for others, their only genuine chance of silverware from an eight month long campaign. So who are looking the teams most likely to in the FA Cup thus far this year?
The Big Guns
Of the top flight big guns, it is easy to make a case for any of the big sides left in the competition; but with caveats, of course.
Arsenal are the current holders, and they are firmly in the mix with a fifth round tie against Hull at the Emirates a tough but obviously winnable affair. They beat Burnley 2-1 on Saturday, and while Arsene Wenger took the opportunity to rest some players it was noticeable that the likes of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Laurent Koscielny all started.
Wenger is clearly taking this competition seriously then, despite the Gunners being in the mix for Premier and Champions League glory. At 4/1 they are backable given their recent history, although it will be interesting to see how dedicated they are to the cup in the next few weeks should they maintain their title challenge.
The undoubted tie of the fifth round will see Manchester City travel down the M1 to take on Chelsea, and while these two big cats would have liked to avoid bumping into each other at this stage of the competition, a win here would naturally create a huge opportunity for the victor.
Given the way the two sides lined up at the weekend – and their ongoing commitments to league and other cups – you would probably have to fancy Chelsea to be favourites. The injury to Kevin De Bruyne has left his club on the edge, with Pellegrini having to decide when to risk his other injury-prone stars (Aguero, Silva and Toure have all spent plenty of time in the treatment room at the Etihad). The FA Cup is unlikely to be at the top of his list; as evidenced by his team selection at Villa on Saturday.
Hiddink named his strongest available starting eleven by all accounts, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s inclusion ahead of Willian perhaps the only notable change. The Blues are still involved in Champions League action of course, but with their league campaign a matter of pride rather than prizes, it is the FA Cup that represents their best chance of silverware this term. If they get past the challenge of City next time out then seriously consider investing in the London club.
Spurs have a fine history in this competition, lifting the trophy on less than eight occasions, and there is the sense that Mauricio Pochettino is treating the FA Cup with respect it deserves if his team selections in ties against Leicester and Colchester are anything to go by.
Their home form this term could well become a factor in later rounds – they lost just two of twelve at White Hart Lane, and it will be in their fifth round tie too when they host Crystal Palace. They look a decent price at 7/1, but avoiding injuries to the likes of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen will be crucial as this is a pretty thin Tottenham squad.
Of the rest of the pack, it’s hard to make a case for any other side. Everton are too inconsistent to be able to accurately predict how they will play next time out, and an away tie at Bournemouth is less than ideal. Their Merseyside neighbours Liverpool are too unpredictable too, and we have yet to see the best of the Reds under Jurgen Klopp. They have to travel to West Ham for a fifth round replay as well; and thus must be avoided by punters in the meantime.
Watford’s poor recent form will have their fans worried that they are set to fade away this term, while Bournemouth – who have the quality to survive Premier League relegation with ease – will still be favouring league over cup until the mathematical certainties have been achieved. West Brom, meanwhile, struggle to string three or four winning performances together in the league, and so have to be discounted.
And that just leaves us with the Championship and lower league sides: none of whom look tempting given their tricky fifth round fixtures.
So perhaps it is Chelsea, who lifted the FA Cup in Guus Hiddink’s previous tenure, that are the best tip. What a perfect send-off that would be for John Terry….