With Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal already out and either Chelsea or Manchester United set to follow, the FA Cup feels like a relatively open competition this season. Manchester City and whichever side emerges victorious at Stamford Bridge on Monday will be the favourites to lift the trophy – provided Pep Guardiola’s men successfully negotiate a trip to Newport County – but there is a good chance that at least one team from outside the big six will reach this season’s showpiece at Wembley.
The same old arguments about the value of the FA Cup tend to resurface every year. It is clear that the tournament is not as prestigious as it once was, but that is understandable when you consider how much football – and indeed the world – has changed over the last few decades. There is still enjoyment to be found in the world’s oldest cup competition, particularly when a lower-league underdog slays a top-tier giant.
Some argue that many of today’s upsets do not carry the same weight as famous examples from yesteryear, largely because the FA Cup is not treated with equivalent significance. It is hard to deny that shocks can be tarnished if a Premier League club makes 11 changes to its team and does not seem overly bothered to suffer an early elimination, instead preferring to put all their eggs in the top-flight basket due to the riches available to its participants. Whereas winning the FA Cup will see a club pocket £3.6m, finishing 17th in the Premier League boosts the coffers to the tune of at least £100m – as well as bringing access to another year’s worth of television money.
There is, then, a certain amount of economic sense to Premier League outfits resting key players in the early rounds of the FA Cup, particularly if relegation to the Championship remains a possibility. Nobody falls in love with football because of numbers on a spreadsheet, however, and it would be a huge shame if we were to see this season’s fifth-round participants make wholesale changes to their starting XIs, particularly as a path to the semi-finals has opened up in a manner many would not have expected.
Watford, for instance, are eighth in the table and just three points short of the magical 40 mark with 12 games left to play. Javi Gracia heavily rotated his team in the last round against Newcastle United, but they are now in a fantastic position to reach the quarter-finals having been paired with Queens Park Rangers in the fifth round. Watford have not reached the FA Cup final since 1984, so Gracia and the club’s current crop of players must seize this opportunity and try and give Hornets supporters the type of memories that football fans cherish forever.
The same applies to Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace, runners-up in 2016, and Chris Hughton at Brighton and Hove Albion, albeit to a lesser extent given that both sides are just three points clear of the relegation zone. However, four-time winners Wolverhampton Wanderers should hold nothing back as they prepare to face Bristol City on Sunday, with Nuno’s side sitting pretty in seventh spot in the Premier League.
There will only be a maximum of five top-flight teams in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup this season, so there is no excuse for the Premier League’s remaining participants to not give everything in this weekend’s matches.
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