The FA Cup is the world’s oldest football competition and perhaps the most prestigious domestic cup tournament in the sport. While winning the Premier League has become the priority for the top five or six English teams, the FA Cup remains a desirable piece of silverware, and in the case of Arsenal, regular FA Cup success may well have kept their manager in a job for the last four seasons!
This year’s FA Cup is shaping up to be a fascinating edition. There is the classic FA Cup blend of top-flight giants (Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham); lesser Premier League clubs, for whom winning the FA Cup would be a major highlight (Swansea, Brighton, Southampton and Leicester); and lower-league competitors (Wigan) who have already pulled off a few giant-killing acts en route to the last eight.
Wigan are an unusual case. As you would expect, the League One side are the outsiders of the remaining teams in the Cup, and punters who bet online with Stakers can back the Latics to lift the famous trophy at odds of 51.0. However, Paul Cook’s side are not the typical FA Cup minnows. In fact, only five years ago, they won the competition under Roberto Martínez, and of this year’s remaining sides, only Manchester United have won it more recently.
Yet while their recent FA Cup pedigree and their three victories over Premier League opponents make them dangerous on paper, unlike the typical FA Cup minnow, they still have something to play for in the league. Wigan are locked in a three-way tussle for automatic promotion to the Championship, and with a relatively small squad, they may even be forced to prioritise league games over Cup games in the closing weeks of the season.
Those comments also apply to the two relegation-threatened Premier League sides still in the competition, Southampton and Swansea, but of the two, Southampton have the most to worry about. The Saints are just one point off the relegation zone and cannot afford to lose focus in the Premier League. Being drawn against Wigan in the quarter-finals may appear to be a stroke of fortune, but given the League One side’s form in the competition to date, they won’t be easy to overcome for a Saints side with one win in their last 16 league games. It would be no surprise to see Wigan, led by top scorer Will Grigg, edge them out.
Swansea are two points and three places better off than Southampton in the relegation battle, and have four winnable games against bottom-half opponents to come. They are also in much better form than the Saints, under their new boss Carlos Carvalhal, and are likely to give it a real go against Tottenham in a fixture they are not expected to win. Certainly, if Spurs show any sign of complacency, their FA Cup journey could end at the Liberty Stadium.
However, the most dangerous FA Cup opponents in the last eight could prove to be Leicester City and Brighton. With their victory over Arsenal last weekend, the Seagulls have virtually sealed their Premier League spot for next season and will be free to give their all in the Cup, though a trip to Old Trafford looks a tough assignment. Leicester have also drawn top opposition in Chelsea, but they have the advantage of being at home, and with Jamie Vardy in top form, they could prove to be a real handful for Antonio Conte’s side.
For the big guns left in the competition, the FA Cup presents a dilemma. Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham are out of the Premier League hunt, but securing a top-four place is crucial for all three, as is progression in the Champions League. Still, the FA Cup represents their most likely source of silverware this season, and remains a relatively prestigious tournament, particularly for Tottenham, who haven’t won it since 1991.
All three sides have big squads, of course, but Chelsea’s is probably the smallest, and that makes them the most vulnerable of the three big sides remaining. A weakened Chelsea line-up without key players such as Eden Hazard or N’Golo Kanté would certainly be at severe risk against Leicester at the King Power Stadium. Manchester United can probably afford to rest a few players for their tie against Brighton, while Tottenham are likely to field a strong team against Swansea, given how much an FA Cup win would mean for the club.
Which sides will be making it to Wembley? Much will depend on the semi-final draw, of course, but at this stage, Leicester, Tottenham and Manchester United all look like potential FA Cup finalists, though it would not be a huge surprise to see in-form Swansea or giant-killing Wigan pull off a shock result in the last eight. Whatever happens, this year’s final rounds promise to be packed with excitement, surprises and more FA Cup magic.