Debates wage out from TV studios, pubs and living rooms across the land: has the FA Cup lost its glamour and importance?
Let’s face it, the thrill of landing a place in the Europa League (for winning the cup) is of little interest to most, and so without the carrot of something altogether more prestigious as a reward many teams use the competition as an opportunity to field fringe players and promising youngsters.
That’s a huge shame, as this tournament has so much heritage and tradition, and realistically winning the oldest club cup competition on the planet should mean something, anything.
The good news in 2017 is that the vast majority of clubs from up and down the land have taken the FA Cup seriously, and the upshot is that the four semi-finalists – Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal – all feature inside the Premier League’s top six. Realistically, that’s as it should be.
What is particularly appetising is that the pairings in the last four serve up plenty of intriguing narratives. Chelsea and Spurs collide on Saturday afternoon and the emphasis there is very much on the bitter rivalry that has always existed between the teams, but one that has been ramped up a few notches after Chelsea denied Spurs any hope of winning the Premier League in 2015/16….and then suitably bragged about the fact.
As for Sunday’s meeting between Manchester City and Arsenal, the spotlight will fall more on the respective managers than the players. For Arsene Wenger, this is his General Custer moment, with the Wembley clash his Battle of the Little Bighorn. Failure to win here and any hopes he may have of extending his Arsenal career are over.
Struggling to hold onto a Champions League place and without any silverware, Pep Guardiola must be desperate for his Manchester City to lift this trophy. Have the Citizens improved under his guidance? The stats – and league table – suggest not. He won’t be sacked of course, but the pressure on him to deliver the goods in his second season in charge will ramp up significantly if they don’t at least make the final here.
So, we’ve got two humdingers to look forward to this weekend. But where does the best betting value lie?
Alli to Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee
It is often suggested that footballers aren’t the brightest bunch of people; an accusation which clearly is wide of the mark in many instances. Most will know that what happens in those 90 minutes on a football pitch can, at times, be completely random and out of control, and so that over a longer term period results even themselves out and the cream rises to the top.
That’s interesting, because right now the players of Tottenham must be in a better place than their counterparts across the capital at Chelsea.
Exhibit A: Spurs have won more Premier League points in 2017 than the Blues. Does that give the men in white the confidence that, right now at least, they are a better side than their capital rivals?
Exhibit B: Chelsea come into this game on the back of two recent defeats. The 0-2 defeat to Manchester United was blamed on a sickness bug going around the camp, while the 1-2 loss to Crystal Palace was explained away as just ‘one of those things’. Fair enough, but defeat dents confidence….something the Spurs players aren’t lacking given that they have won seven games in a row.
Exhibit C: January 4. Tottenham beat Chelsea 2-0 with both goals coming from Dele Alli headers. The England international exploited a weakness in the Blues backline – namely a lack of height between Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta – and made them pay. Will that be a factor once again this weekend?
Possibly, and you can get 8/5 on a Spurs win, 7/4 on Delle Alli to score anytime and the Dele Alli/Spurs 2-1 Anytime Scorecast is available at 20/1. All are highly plausible.
The End of An Era
Arsenal’s hard fought victory over Middlesbrough – that’s a Middlesbrough side that scores roughly 0.60 goals per game – was just their third in ten outings, and suggested an air of desperation as Arsene Wenger switched to a three man defence in recognition of the fact that Chelsea, key ‘three men at the back exponents’, have far surpassed the Gunners this term.
You sense however that Wenger could line up with three at the back plus Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Steve Bould….his side will not stop Manchester City scoring at least once on Sunday.
And so he must coax a big performance out of the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and others if his team are to have any chance of getting a result, and given that those two mentioned want to leave the club he really is fighting a losing battle.
The FA Cup is the Frenchman’s last chance at grasping onto this job as Arsenal boss….and Manchester City, at 10/11, look well placed to bring the curtain down on a historic but ultimate failing dynasty at the club.