This weekend's FA Cup fifth-round action has some task on its hands to match the incredible heroics of the last round, which saw League One side Bradford City put four past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Middlesbrough knock out Premier League champions Manchester City.
High-profile casualties have left the path to the latter stages of the competition wide open, with Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool leading a pack of top-flight sides that have their eyes on the trophy this season.
Heading into this weekend's ties all 16 teams left in the competition know they are just two games away from a Wembley Stadium semi-final, but who will take their chance to shine over the next three days?
Bradford City v Sunderland (Valley Parade)
Bradford pulled off possibly the greatest shock of all time to see off Chelsea 4-2 in the last round and their reward for their exploits was a home tie against the North East side. Sunderland saw off Fulham last night in a replay to book their place in the FA Cup Fifth Round.
These sides have enjoyed great cup runs in recent years, with both reaching the League Cup final in the past 3 seasons. Gus Poyet’s team will begin the tie as favourites due to their Premier League status but Bradford will have a great home crowd behind them and are giant killing specialists.
Expect a few changes to be made to the Mackems team though, as their first priority will be to stave off relegation from the top flight. Although at this stage of the tournament, pressure will be put on Poyet to really take the FA Cup seriously from the fans, who have long been starved of major silverware.
Holders get home draw
Arsenal v Middlesbrough (Emirates Stadium)
The reigning holders of the cup will fancy their chances of defending their title, having seen the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City crash out. What’s more a home tie against Championship Middlesbrough will be viewed as a favourable draw.
However Boro will be no pushovers, as they displayed in knocking out City 2-0, in the last round at the Etihad. They are also competing well in the Championship and are one of the favourites to win promotion to the Premier League.
In recent times Arsenal’s fortunes have changed somewhat, after a breakthrough away win and a solid defensive performance to boot at Man City. Since then a victory against Brighton and a 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa has seen Arsene Wenger regain a place back in the fans good books. Middlesbrough have also been in good form, so this will be a contest between 2 sides not lacking for confidence.
The Gunners will quite rightly be strong favourites to progress. Although they can’t take their opponents lightly or could risk facing a similar fate to that suffered by City.
Preston North End v Manchester United (Deepdale)
After years of all Premier League ties, United are finally being handed more favourable draws. Having seen off Yeovil Town in the 3rd round and then Cambridge United eventually in the 4th, they have been matched up against promotion chasing Preston of the 3rd tier. A local tie for the Mancunians should provide a red hot atmosphere at Deepdale, at a club that hasn’t seen this kind of occasion for many years.
Manager Simon Grayson also has pedigree of knocking United out of the cup, having been in charge of the Leeds team who famously dumped the Red Devils out at Old Trafford a few years ago.
Both sides sit in similar positions in their respective leagues but obviously the away side will be overwhelming favourites. Louis Van Gaal has stated that the FA Cup is now the club’s priority, so expect a full strength team to turn up, ready for the battle. Experiences so far in the competition will have warmed United of the strength of the English lower leagues, so the record winners will certainly pay Preston a lot of respect.
West Bromwich Albion v West Ham United (Hawthorns)
This is perhaps not one of the rounds’ most eye catching ties but is intriguing none the less. It features 2 sides experiencing good form in recent times and who both may fancy their chances in taking advantage of the suddenly wide open competition.
Since a difficult last season in which most fans called for Sam Allardyce’s head, West Ham have improved dramatically this season, sitting comfortably in mid table. Whilst West Brom endured a tough first half of the campaign before manager Alan Irvine was relieved of his duties. Tony Pulis was appointed by the Baggies, in a huge coup for the club. The Welshman has worked wonders since joining and is steering the club clear of the relegation mire.
Aston Villa v Leicester City (Villa Park)
In another all Premier League tie, 2 of the divisions struggling sides face off at Villa Park. The FA Cup has proved to be a good distraction from the league for Leicester, who have managed to knock out Newcastle and Tottenham on their way to the 5th round. Villa meanwhile have been in turmoil, with the fans growing increasingly hostile towards manager, Paul Lambert.
Both could do with a decent cup win and for such a big club, Villa could really do with breaking their long trophy drought. Their priorities lie in avoiding relegation from the world’s richest league but this will be a hotly contested showdown, with a Wembley semi final just 2 wins away. Leicester may have the psychological advantage, having recently beaten their Midlands rivals at the King Power stadium in a rare league win.
Blackburn Rovers v Stoke City (Ewood Park)
This tie sees Mark Hughes return to his old club of whom he enjoyed great success with as manager. Stoke as the Premier League side will be tipped for the victory and may fancy a shot at the trophy, having made the final under Tony Pulis not so long ago.
Blackburn have been in decent form in the Championship, flirting with the play off spots as they look to return to the top flight. They impressively knocked out Swansea City in the last round and manager Gary Bowyer will sense another upset here. Strikers Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes have been among the most prolific in the country as a duo and will cause Stoke’s sturdy back 4 problems. With no Bojan, Stoke will be hoping for Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch to start banging in some goals.
Derby County v Reading (Pride Park)
In the only tie not to feature a Premier League side, this all Championship clash is still an interesting match up. Having come so close last season, Derby have been strongly pushing for promotion this season. Reading have generally struggled but have picked up recently under new boss Steve Clarke.
The Rams made this stage by beating fellow Derbyshire side Chesterfield in the 4th round. Reading secured their place by seeing off Cardiff City in the Welsh capital. This tie ensures that the Championship will be represented in the quarter finals and if they get a decent draw, one of these 2 could be in with a shot of a memorable day out at Wembley.
Crystal Palace v Liverpool (Selhurst Park)
In a repeat of the sides famous tie in the early 90’s, Liverpool face a daunting trip to a ground which has given them nothing but sleepless nights in recent times. Last season Palace came from 3-0 down at Selhurst, to draw 3-3, in a spectacular comeback which effectively ended Pool’s title challenge. This campaign the score was 3-1 to the South Londoners in a day of which nightmares are made of for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
However, with many of the top teams being dumped out in the last round, Liverpool will fancy their chances of winning the cup back. If they did go all the way, it could mean the most romantic ending possible for their talismanic captain. In his last season at the club, it’s Steven Gerrard’s birthday on the day of the final. What a way to go out that would be if he could lift the FA Cup at Wembley once again. Although Palace have been resurgent under club legend Alan Pardew and in front of a fanatic home crowd, will be a tough nut to crack.
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