Sunday 24 September 2017

From giant-killers to over-achievers – What to look forward to in the FA Cup this weekend

Only 16 teams remain in the hunt for the FA Cup
Only 16 teams remain in the hunt for the FA Cup

Michael Verney

With only 16 teams left out of an initial 736 in the running for world football's oldest competition, Independent.ie marks your card about what you can look forward to on what will be an emotional Valentine's football weekend.

Hopes will be dashed and hearts broken for those exiting the great competition while successful clubs can dream of being part of the season finale in Wembley on May 30.

The 2014/2015 competition is one of the most open in history with the Premier League's top two, Chelsea and Manchester City, both sensationally shocked in the fourth round.

Here are five things to watch for over three days of exciting fifth-round FA Cup action this weekend.

The big guns

Last year's champions Arsenal are the Cup's most successful club along with Manchester United, both with 11 titles, and along with Liverpool they remain the three main protagonists still standing.

The Gunners are home to Middlesbrough on Sunday and will have to be at their best against an in-form Championship side.

Harry Kane's double stunned Arsene Wenger's side in the North London derby last week and Sunday's four o'clock kick-off is a crucial tie if momentum is to be maintained at the Emirates.

Liverpool are enjoying a recent resurgence and buoyed by Mario Balotelli's late winner against Spurs midweek they visit Selhurst Park to play Crystal Palace.

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Mario Balotelli has endured a difficult start to life at Liverpool

Daniel Sturridge's return has boosted morale on Merseyside and while two games in four days might be a bridge too far the Pool striker Brendan Rodgers' side will do everything in their power to give Steven Gerrard a Wembley farewell.

United, despite not impressing with their style of play, are beginning to churn out results with greater consistency but Louis van Gaal's side face a tricky trip to Preston North End in Monday evening's standalone fixture.

The giant-killers

Fresh from their win away to City at the Ethihad and unbeaten in 2015 with six wins from their last seven games, Middlesbrough are flying high.

Aitor Karanka's side stunned the Blues with an efficient defensive display in the first-half before opening up in the second period with goals from Patrick Bamford and Kike.

The Skybet Championship leaders will not fear their money-laden opponents and if they can maintain their defensive stability, they will fancy their chances of taking another big name en route to the quarter-finals.

Bradford City sent tsunamis throughout the football world with their 4-2 away win at Stamford Bridge, made all the more miraculous given the fact they trailed 2-0 with half-time approaching.

The Bantams welcome top-flight Sunderland to the Coral Windows Stadium and despite being eighth in League One, there will be a great deal of optimism in the City side.

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Bradford City's Irish midfielder Mark Yeates (C) drops to his knees as he celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal against Chelsea

They are unbeaten since their defeat of the Blues and with former Black Cats striker John Stead pulling the strings there is a viable opportunity of maintaining their giant-killing mission.

The persecuted

The clash of Aston Villa and Leicester City is hardly one to get the pulses raising but what it may lack in action, it certainly makes up for in drama.

It resembles a Hollywood sub-plot after Paul Lambert's recent release from Villa Park due to the recent spate of disastrous results and Nigel Pearson's falsely rumoured firing from King Power Stadium earlier this week.

Villa slipped into the relegation zone after their midweek defeat to fellow strugglers Hull City, in what was Lambert's last game as manager, as the Birmingham side continued their misfiring form in front of goals.

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Aston Villa have parted company with manager Paul Lambert, pictured

Leicester's 5-3 win against Man United in September seems like an eternity ago and the Foxes have struggled at the highest level in the intervening period.

Propping up the bottom of the table five points behind 18th Villa has placed huge pressure on Pearson and makes Sunday's early kick-off all the more important.

A Cup run could make or break their respective seasons and with a place in the last eight available and valuable momentum in the race for survival this game is a must see.

Even though the quality of the action might not be of the highest standard, what's at stake is at the heart of everything the FA Cup represents.

The over-achievers

All eyes will be on Deepdale Monday night as Preston welcome the aristocrats of English football, Man United, with a rare Cup quarter-final place at stake.

Simon Grayson's side were one of the founding members of the English Football League and what better story than for the Lancashire club to take down the Red Devils in front of the television cameras.

Lying fourth in League One, the Lilywhites will come up against van Gaal's side, who contain outstanding talent like Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Angel di Maria, but can these world class players produce their best against their fired-up opponents in front of a raucous home crowd?

Derby and Reading, 3rd and 14th respectively, meet in the only all-Championship clash at Pride Park with the Rams expected to best the Royals.

Based on their Championship positions this should be the case but Steve Clarke's side, with Republic of Ireland international Stephen Kelly to the fore, will hope to kick-start their season with a win.

The rest

The remaining cup ties take place Saturday afternoon and contain four sides without any real hopes of domestic league success but similarly without any real relegation worries.

In the all-Premier League fixture high-flying West Ham United, still reeling from the concession of a last gasp equaliser against Man United midweek, face 14th-place West Bromwich Albion.

Sam Allardyce's side have been one of the major success stories of the season but with breaking news that star striker Andy Carroll will be sidelined for up to six weeks with medial ligament damage, optimism will have lowered somewhat at Upton Park.

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Andy Carroll has suffered another injury blow

Tony Pulis has brought stability to West Brom since taking earlier this year and their consistency could be rewarded with a much-needed Cup run.

Likewise Mark Hughes' Stoke City are unlikely to be players at either end of the table and their game with Blackburn Rovers is an intriguing one.

Rovers, mid-table in the Championship on the year of their 20th anniversary of their sole Premiership title win in 1995, are ten points away from the promotion places and a win could provide a lifeline for their season.

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