There are eight ties in the fifth round of the FA Cup this weekend and only three are kicking off at 3pm on Saturday. Many Premier League and Championship outfits played weakened teams in the previous round and paid the price with elimination. Staying in or getting in the Premier League is so huge these days that for some clubs the FA Cup is a distraction and unwelcome intrusion into more important issues.
However, at just before 8pm on Monday evening the true glory of the Cup will capture the imagination of a television audience all around the world. Sutton of the National League host the mighty Arsenal in a tie that could produce one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition. We all know that one of the Premier League superpowers will be running around Wembley with the Cup in May but Sutton can still dream, especially as they have the advantage of having an artificial surface pitch.
In the early years of the competition non-league clubs were regular winners as there was not a huge gap between full time professional clubs and others further down the pyramid. However, for the first time in the modern era two non-league teams have progressed to the fifth round. Lincoln visit Burnley who have the fourth best home record in the Premier League so an upset is not on the cards. Team selection will be key but Burnley are comfortable in mid table so should play a strong team.
Despite the fixtures involving the semi-professionals this season the Cup has lost some of its mystique and appeal. During the Premier League era 46 of the 48 finalists have come from the top division. The average league position at the end of the season of the FA Cup winners over this spell is fifth. Teams from the upper echelons of the Premier League in terms of status and money win the Cup every year.
Sutton and Lincoln are just the joint ninth teams to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup since 1945. Both clubs are run well and have recruited good managers whom the fans and the players have bought into but beating Premier League opponents will be just about impossible. However, if Arsenal are beaten surely Arsene Wenger would find his position untenable. There are rumours he has decided to go at the end of the season but losing to non-league opposition could see him pushed.
As much as the romantics would love to see it happen Arsenal will be focused and can win the tie by more than two goals. Lincoln will struggle to keep the score at similar levels at Burnley. The cream rises to the top in the later rounds of the FA Cup so the two Premier League outfits can progress to the quarter-finals which means they are one match from Wembley. Playing the semi-finals at the National Stadium also takes the gloss of the final but the FA have to pay for their investment and Wembley is a brilliant modern stadium that is best equipped to stage the big occasions.
Three of the other Premier League big six have road trips to Championship opposition and all should achieve away wins. The gap in wealth between any side in the Premier League and teams from the Championship is huge so Chelsea (at Wolves), Tottenham (at Fulham) and Manchester United (at Blackburn) should progress. Manchester City will be too strong for Huddersfield so five of the top six in the betting to win the Premier League will be in the last eight of the Cup.
Leicester can beat Millwall and thus could achieve the bizarre distinction of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League, the last eight of the Cup and be relegated as defending Premier League champions. The Cup is providing respite from the horrors of their league form but Leicester can be more like last season’s version at Millwall and move forwards. That might not save Claudio Ranieri from the boot because playing in the Premier League is far more important than a Cup run.
However, all that will be forgotten at Sutton on Monday night and every fan in England who doesn’t support Arsenal will be hoping for a sporting miracle. Leicester did win the Premier league last season at 5,000/1 and Sutton are a mere 14/1 to beat Arsenal.