The tie of the round in the FA Cup this weekend is a fixture that brings together two sides that are threatening to gatecrash the Champions League party. Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City are vying for a place in the premier European competition and the outcome of their Cup match could depend on the respective levels of focus in view of more important issues to address over the rest of the season.
Liverpool, Aston Villa and Swansea are faced with the classic third round scenario of being teams out of form from the Premier League visiting sides from further down the pyramid. The matches hosted by Exeter City, Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford United have been hand picked for live TV coverage due to the potential for upsets. The fixtures are typical banana skins for the better sides and Villa in particular look vulnerable.
Manchester United should be one of the home bankers of the third round when they play Sheffield United at Old Trafford on Saturday. This fixture was a certain win during the Alex Ferguson era but nothing seems certain now. A home defeat would be massively damaging for Louis Van Gaal and could prompt his departure through his own volition or by being sacked but his side should progress on the basis of recent form. United went eight games without a win before beating Swansea recently.
The BBC trailer for their coverage plays on the fact that anything can happen in the Cup. Certainly there is a history of shocks in the earlier rounds but usually the cream comes to the top. Since the beginning of the Premier League era for the 1992/93 season 44 of the 46 finalists have come from the top level of English football. In the last 23 seasons the average Premier League finishing position of the Cup winners has been fifth while the losing finalists averaged eighth place in the top league.
In 2004 Millwall from League One were outclassed by Manchester United in the Cup Final. Four years later Cardiff represented the Championship but were beaten by Portsmouth who were in the Premier League at the time. One of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have won the FA Cup 18 times since 1993 and since joining the elite Manchester City have also won the competition. The point is that despite early upsets the Cup has been dominated by the Premier League superpowers.
Tottenham in the Glenn Hoddle fancy Dan era were always known as a Cup team. They won the Wembley decider if there was a one in the year such as 1981 and 1961 when they became the first team in the twentieth century to win the double. That feat almost became commonplace and Arsenal and Manchester United have achieved it during the life of the Premier League.
Leicester lost in the 1961, 1963 and 1969 finals to Tottenham and United and City from Manchester respectively. The Midlands club have never won the Cup and I wonder if they would swap a Cup Final win for a place in the Champions League. On current form avoiding defeat at Spurs looks beyond them so they will be able to concentrate on the league after the fixture at the weekend.
Manchester United have won the FA Cup 11 times but not since 2004 nor during Fergie’s retirement. They are triple winners of the league and Cup double which is a record. Winning the Premier League and being competitive in the Champions League were priorities during their pomp. However, the current regime may need a good Cup run to stay in place especially with Jose Mourinho prowling and willing to walk up the motorway barefoot to replace Van Gaal.
A recent improvement cannot hide the fact that United are underachieving and not playing good football. One Wayne Rooney flick to win the home match against Swansea last weekend does not disguise the fact that the Dutch manager is only three bad results from losing his job. Sheffield United are 8th in League One and just four points out of the play-off places. However, they are 16th on away form so should be dispatched by United at Old Trafford but this is the Cup and anything can happen.
Aston Villa are in dire shape in the Premier League and are facing the nightmare scenario of relegation. The top division is about to become even wealthier after the signing of the latest TV deal and overseas revenues. Villa will miss out and could begin a process of moving through the leagues in the wrong direction.
Wycombe host Villa on the back of League Two season in which they have played their way into a play-off position. On paper a team from the top division should have no trouble beating a side three leagues lower but Villa are a Championship quality side clinging on to their status and are certainties to go down this season. Even so they should get out of Wycombe with a draw and have enough to win the replay at home.
Jurgen Klopp has not changed the Liverpool side to any degree and is getting the results the quality of personal at his disposal justifies. They have scored the fewest number of league goals in their history after 20 league games. Christian Benteke does look to be the answer and Daniel Sturridge is always injured. Danny Ings is out for the season so Heir Klopp must spend some Euro in January to get his side scoring but Liverpool should eliminate Exeter from the Cup.
Swansea have improved marginally since sacking Gary Monk. However, they are still a place and two points away from the relegation places and Newcastle just above them are good enough to get out of the mire. The Cup may not give the Welsh side any respite and Oxford United could be giant killers but ultimately the FA Cup will run to form and one of the big boys should win it again this season.