The final four of this season’s FA Cup is now set and the draw has created two rather interesting plots. Although the prospect of a clash between Chelsea and Manchester City is obviously enticing, it is the duel between Leicester and Southampton which is arguably more interesting.
Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola facing off against each other in the semi-final eliminates the possibility of a fourth ‘big six’ final in five years. This could be good for the continued accusations that the oldest and greatest cup competition in the world is losing its lustre.
The FA Cup has largely been the preserve of that elite group of clubs since the turn of the millennium but when we talk about the ‘big six’, in all honesty it’s more like the ‘famous five’. With Tottenham not winning an FA Cup since 1991, it has been been passed England’s five other biggest clubs, not forgetting two notable exceptions.
Although the wins for both Portsmouth and Wigan were throwbacks to the magic of yesteryear, such outcomes are a rarity and the elite having such a squeeze on the competition is perhaps the reason why its appeal continues to fade.
Just as the Premier League can usually only be won by a handful of clubs, it seems as if the FA Cup has now become an extension of the same problem, though there are always exceptions to the rule.
In terms of the league, the only recent exception arrived in the shape of Leicester, who famously pulled off one of the greatest underdog stories ever in 2016, but the King Power outfit are yet to add to their silverware cabinet in the five years that have followed.
However, that could all change by the end of the season. The FA Cup needs a shot in the arm and, specifically, it drastically needs more winners from outside the big six – though some would argue that Leicester are on the verge of joining that elite group themselves.
Which is why the story of Southampton is maybe the most interesting one in the competition and, although their league form has been ailing this in the second half of the season, their FA cup run has at least provided some tonic for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s men.
With one trip to Wembley on their upcoming agenda, the Saints will hope that a second one follows and, if they do make it all the way to the final, they will match their efforts of the 2002/03 season.
That was a year in which Arsene Wenger got the better of Gordon Strachan, as the Gunners won a second consecutive FA Cup and started the trend of dominance that has played out over the past couple of decades.
Should Southampton make it to the FA’s showpiece event on May 15th, then they will certainly go there as underdogs whoever they play. If they go up against Manchester City, there is a fear that 2019 could repeat itself. That was the year in which Pep Guardiola’s men ran riot at Wembley and put no less than six unanswered goals past a hapless Watford. A result that, for many, was a final nail in this great competition.
In a one-off game such as that and at the pinnacle of a football season, no team should be losing by a half dozen goals and even if there is a perceived gulf in quality, the outcome should not be so one-sided.
Whether it was down to Manchester City being relentless or Watford being terrible can still be argued to this day. However, all will agree that such a result did little to help the image of the FA Cup.
After watching such a result, neutrals, or maybe even City fans themselves, would have asked “what is the point?” and, in all honesty, that is the same question that those outside the Premier League’s elite often ask.
The refusal of the non-elite Premier League clubs, who often have relegation to worry about, to get excited about knockout action plays into the hands of the big six and the fact that they are climbing the Wembley steps more often than not, is because the Road To Wembley has very few bumps.
Although it is easy to target those at the top of the league ladder, it is perhaps an issue that has enveloped the whole of English football and with the glitz of the Champions League only getting brighter, the allure of domestic prizes may soon diminish even further. For that reason alone, the FA Cup desperately needs a surprise winner this season.
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