For those who were fortunate enough to catch the FA Cup action over the weekend or even just skim over the results, have your jaws been picked up off the floor yet? Undeniably, it was a weekend for the ages in some respects. In others, it reaffirmed the thoughts in some circles that bigger clubs just don’t care as much about the FA Cup anymore.
And in a way, what happened over the weekend made the finale that much more predictable, despite the struggles some of these bigger clubs were able to survive in the fourth round of matches.
Of the 20 teams in the English Premier League, half of them are out. Of those 10, only half of them are in the top half of the table. Finally, none of those five are in the top three—Chelsea, Manchester City, and Southampton are all out—and fourth place Manchester United faces a replay against Cambridge United.
Yes, the weekend provided copious amounts of fun for the likes of Bradford City, who rallied from two goals down to defeat arguably one of the best clubs in the world in Chelsea 2–4. Then there’s Middlesbrough, who not only defeated Man City, but kept a clean sheet in the process with a 0–2 victory away from home.
Strictly on the EPL side of things, Crystal Palace edged Southampton 2–3 away from home while relegation fodder Leicester City struck twice to send out Tottenham Hotspur with a tally of 1–2 and, you guessed it: were away from home while doing so. For the top three clubs, however, this isn’t the worst of situations. While Chelsea and City have a title race to worry about, not to mention the Champions League competition, the Saints should be putting all their eggs into the basket of qualifying for the UCL next season.
As for United, who couldn’t muster a goal against a League Two side last Friday, sticking around in this competition could be quite beneficial for them. Despite how they could be described as “average” this season, they’ve been good enough to currently hold down fourth. I believe they’ll bounce back between third and fourth place for the remainder of the season, but without the burden of playing matches in Europe this term, an FA Cup run should not be out of the question.
West Ham, currently seventh, have to attempt to take full advantage of whichever competition they happen to be in. A spot in Europe is far from guaranteed at the moment, so they along with the likes of Liverpool—who also couldn’t muster a goal in a draw against Championship side Bolton—should show plenty of effort going forward.
The breakdowns above are a good indicator of which sides have bigger priorities in mind rather than the FA Cup. Tottenham, for instance, have a 1–0 advantage as they head to Sheffield United for the second leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal on Wednesday. This is bigger than anything they have going on at the moment, as they are just one positive match away from booking their trip to a cup final—not to mention the Europa League knockout stages coming up all the while balancing a league spot in an attempt to qualify for Europe next year.
So when Phil McNulty pens an article with the header: “Is this the most open competition ever?” a couple of thoughts spring to mind. In a way, yes, this weekend proved that shock results galore can happen here. A big reason for that is the simple fact that just about all of England is eligible for this tournament. This isn’t your run of the mill 30–40 club affair, and in that sense, it certainly gives the cup a magical feeling.
On the other hand, as we go deeper and deeper into it, it’s not particularly surprising to see huge clubs bow out earlier than we all expect them too. Of course, Bradford City embarrassing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge should never happen, regardless of the team assembled on the pitch. A side like City should at least be able to put one past a club like Middlesbrough, but alas, here we are.
Results like this, particularly from bigger clubs, could indicate that plenty of players feel they should exert themselves more elsewhere. The UCL knockout stages loom for the top two teams in the EPL. The Saints would like to finish in the top four this season, and having as few matches as possible—comparatively—will go a long way in helping that.
Yet, for all the magic this past weekend brought us and for what it will continue to bring in the years to come, we can almost see the final from a mile away. It all depends on the luck of the draw, of course, but an all-EPL final can never be discounted. Last season, Hull City surprised us all en route to the final, but they were still a top-flight club. Of course, they fell to Arsenal, who with the weekend of upsets have been labeled favorites to repeat as champions.
I’ve watched enough of the NCAA tournament over the years to know that the upsets don’t last forever. As a big fan of the underdog that disappoints me, but it’s simply the reality of the situation. You’d have to go back decades to find an FA Cup winner that wasn’t in the top flight at the time. So while we’re all ecstatic as it pertains to what happened over the weekend, when the dust settles on the FA Cup final, it’s ok to be anything but.
In fact, it’s the likely outcome, unfortunately.