For those who have questioned whether the magic of the FA Cup is alive and well, this year’s Cup has been proof that there’s still a bit of sparkle left in the competition.
Rarely do non-league sides make such long runs in the FA Cup, but this year served up Sutton United’s run to the Fifth Round before falling to Arsenal and a magical run from Lincoln City that sees them face that very Arsenal side in the Sixth Round of the competition.
This upcoming round of the FA Cup has a little bit of everything – a minnow facing a top team in the Premier League, a heated London derby, and of course, a heavyweight clash between two footballing titans in the top division.
For Chelsea, it’s clear that they are one of the favourites to win this competition, but to do so, they will have to navigate a tricky quarterfinal matchup against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
Stamford Bridge has been a bit of a bogey ground for United over the years, and this year was no exception. United travelled to London back in October and left after taking a thorough 4-0 beating at the hands of a resurgent Chelsea.
This time, United will come into this match with a lot more confidence. Back in October, it seemed like manager Jose Mourinho was still coming to grips with the magnitude of the job ahead. At times, his team played as if they were a bunch of square pegs in round holes, and when they were put in the correct spots, the balance of the side seemed to be off.
Fast forward to now, and United have only tasted defeat just once since the start of December, and that was a 2-1 loss to Hull City in the EFL Cup semifinals and they won the tie anyway. More importantly, Mourinho’s found a balance to his side, with the inclusion of Michael Carrick and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and it’s gotten the best from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
In the Chelsea camp, things couldn’t be going better. Two blips in the road have appeared lately, a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur and a 1-1 draw at Burnley, but otherwise, Antonio Conte’s machine just keeps rolling along.
Victory over United most certainly would put them as the favourites to complete the league and cup double for the second time in club history, and with such a commanding position in the Premier League, an FA Cup would simply cap off a great season.
This match is tough to call, only because United have played much better since these two teams met back in October. The one thing that I think might swing the match in Chelsea’s favour is the Europa League draw. The Red Devils have to travel to Russia to face Rostov before facing the Blues at Stamford Bridge, and that might be the slight advantage that swings the match in favour of the hosts.
Should Chelsea advance to a semi-final at Wembley, it’s likely that the Blues will face another one of the top sides from the Premier League, as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have winnable matches in the quarterfinals.
Arsenal face the Cinderella story of the competition so far, welcoming Lincoln City to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday 11 March.
It’s expected that Arsenal will advance, but Lincoln City can cause a few problems to the hosts. If there’s been one criticism of Arsenal in recent years, it’s that they lack a bit of physicality throughout the team.
If there’s one thing that Lincoln City don’t lack is physicality, particularly up front with strike Matt Rhead. The 6’4” striker has the size, and as seen against Burnley, he’s not afraid to put himself about. Outside of Gabriel Paulista, none of Arsenal’s centre backs are particularly physical, so that might be an area that Lincoln City may look to exploit.
More to the point, the mood around the Emirates is an interesting one at the moment. Given recent results and the fact that they could be out of the Champions League and the Premier League title race, the Arsenal support is divided among those who believe that Arsene Wenger should stay and those who believe it might be time to head in a new direction.
The longer that Lincoln City can stay in the match, the more likely it is that the atmosphere inside the Emirates could be a little nervy and could affect the outcome on the pitch.
Spurs also have a relatively winnable fixture in a London derby against Millwall at White Hart Lane.
On paper, this really should be an easy win for Tottenham. Millwall have had a decent season, challenging for a playoff place in League One, but Spurs have been on a very good run as of late and are one of the most talented teams at the top of the Premier League.
However, if there are two real weakness in this Spurs side. One is that there isn’t a true match-winner in this team. It’s not a problem against teams that will come out and play, but against teams that essentially sit deep and look to defend, they’ve had difficulty at times breaking down the defence.
The other main issue for Spurs is that their temperament is questionable at times. As seen by Dele Alli’s challenge on Gent’s Brecht Dejaegere Thursday night and the number of yellow cards picked up for dissent late in matches, there is a tendency for Spurs to see a bit of the red mist when circumstances in a match get a little testy.
Millwall have shown so far in the FA Cup that they’re willing to fully to commit to challenges and aren’t afraid to play in a more robust style, and Spurs will need to keep their heads so that their quality will see them through.
Manchester City are also likely to advance to a semi-final at Wembley, but they will have to get past both Huddersfield in a fifth-round replay and a sixth-round match away to Middlesbrough.
It’s hard to see past City in either match because it’s likely that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola will stick with his strongest side possible. Because of the EFL Cup final and the fact that the Champions League round of 16 is spread out over five weeks, City have not had to deal with fixture congestion and will likely play their strongest side in both matches.
Boro, though, aren’t the sternest test that City could have in the sixth round. Boro’s main problem this season is their inability to score goals, highlighted by Boro’s 10 draws and just four wins in 25 Premier League matches this season.
If City play their strongest side, it’s hard to look past them beating Boro and getting to the semifinal.
If nothing else, the way the draw was set up for the quarterfinals should make for three show-piece matches at Wembley in both the semifinal and the final.
Chelsea probably won’t worry too much about who they face in the semifinal or the final, but if there is one side that might cause them a little bit of trouble, it is Tottenham, particularly if the North Londoners are at full strength.
Regardless, it’s difficult to see any of the teams left in the competition giving Chelsea many problems, but as we’ve seen in the FA Cup this season, anything can happen.