Pieces Of Eight
On the morning of the FA Cup fifth round, I realised that I had completely forgotten to put up any sort of preview, so I sorted one out about ten minutes about five minutes before the first match was due to start. I’m not making that mistake again, I can tell you. It’s the FA Cup sixth round this weekend, and I’ve prepared a full preview of this week’s matches. With Arsenal and Liverpool dumped out already, there’s a decent chance of somebody else making the final this year and, with it seeming likely that it’ll be the first major match to play at Wembley, there’s all to play for. Considering the fact that Arsenal’s season is now more or less over at the start of March, perhaps they should take it a bit more seriously next season. Don’t try telling me for a single second that the FA Cup “doesn’t matter any more”.
Middlesbrough vs Manchester United: You’ve got to be impressed by Middlesbrough’s run in the FA Cup. It’s involved 19 goals, three replays and two penalty shoot-outs so far. The idea is starting to form in my head that they may have been riding their luck. They have been taken to the wire, so far, by Hull City, Bristol City and West Bromwich Albion, but elsewhere this season they’ve held Arsenal to a draw twice, beaten Bolton 5-1 and beaten Chelsea. They’re not far from impossible to predict. Manchester United have been terrific in the league from time to time, but in the last round of the FA Cup they were extraordinarily dependent on the Reading defence’s generosity for the first five minutes of their replay, and they looked tired against Lille last night. It’s not merely wishful thinking to say that Middlesbrough could snatch this. They’ve had a longer break and have played less matches this season. They also have some potentially great players in the likes of Mark Viduka and Yakubu Aiyegbeni. Having said that, though, they’re utterly schizophrenic and Manchester United, in spite of a growing injury list, have been superb for most of this season. At their best, Middlesbrough are plenty capable of winning this, and at their worst they could get thrashed. The only thing that I can conceive of predicting is a draw.
Blackburn Rovers vs Manchester City: Poor old Manchester City. This season has vague echoes of the 1982/83 season for them, when they collapsed from mid-table security into a relegation struggle that they weren’t expecting. Then, of course, they went down on the last day of the season, and there are plenty of reasons to think that they might yet do the same thing this season. There’s daylight between them and Charlton and Watford at the moment, but there hasn’t been much to suggest that they’re going to improve on recent form. Blackburn, meanwhile, are solid. Their win against Arsenal in the last round awesomely dour, but couldn’t have been more effective. I think that they lack the quality to actually win the Cup, but I would expect them to get a place in the semi-finals without too much difficulty. Sorry, Ed.
Plymouth Argyle vs Watford: A potential surprise? Looking at the merest of facts, possibly. Plymouth have had a decent season in the Championship, and have been excellent in the FA Cup so far. Watford, to be generous, took a little while to find their feet in the Premiership. Having said that, though, their problem for the first half of the season was not that they were losing too many matches, rather that they weren’t winning enough – after seventeen matches, their record read one win, eight draws and eight defeats. Since then, they’ve got their act together and are, of the bottom three, looking like the most able to scramble their way to safety. At any other point in the season, I’d probably be looking at a surprise here, but I can see Watford easing through – maybe at the first attempt, or maybe after a replay. Those of you with long memories might remember the 1984 semi-final between Watford and Plymouth, by the way. Those were the days.
Chelsea vs Tottenham Hotspur: I’m sticking my neck on the line here, but I seriously think that Tottenham might beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Really, I do. Before their match at Fulham, I noted on here that that match was a real season-decider for Spurs. They won 4-0, and have been flying ever since, with wins at Everton, a thrashing of Bolton and that win at West Ham (for which, might I add, they didn’t receive nearly enough credit – coming from 2-0 down and 3-2 down against a team that is desperate for points was a show of inner strength that isn’t normally associated with Tottenham teams). They’ve done it again this evening, against a tidy Sporting Braga team, too. Chelsea, meanwhile, simply don’t look half as good as they think they are. They were remarkably lucky against Porto in the Champions League on Wednesday night, and a mounting injury list means that they’re still scraping around for fit defenders. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind the psychological advantage that they hold from their 2-1 win at White Hart Lane earlier in the season. Jose Mourinho knows that he’s got it all to do. Nine points behind Manchester United, they probably need to win all of their remaining matches in order to win the League. They’ve got the Champions League quarter-finals coming up, too and they’ve already got the season minimum requirement of one piece of silverware on the board. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a couple of key players were rested, and Spurs saw them off. A long shot, I know, but it wouldn’t be very brave of me to predict wins for Manchester United and Chelsea, would it?
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