With Manchester City having been dispatched in the Fifth Round, the remaining eight teams in this seasons FA Cup headed into the Quarter Finals with a sense that all was to play for. Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, the three highest ranked sides left in the competition, were fortunate enough to avoid each other in the draw, while Guardiola’s conquerors Wigan Athletic were served up with another home tie against Premier League opposition, heading into their game with struggling Southampton as slight favourites despite the two-tier difference between the sides. Just one game from Wembley – here are the talking points.
Cup Progress Atones for Euro Exit…
The three big guns left in the competition headed into the weekend’s ties with one thing in common – all three had crashed out of the Champions League in the past two weeks, leaving the FA Cup as the only viable trophy left to play for this season. Tottenham Hotspur were first to the plate this weekend, and while their comprehensive victory at Bournemouth last Sunday would have gone some way to healing the wounds of their European exit, the chance to put themselves two home games away from a trophy will have provided plenty of motivation as they headed to South Wales. Swansea away, though, wasn’t the plumb tie of the draw, and given their Premier League form there were plenty suggesting that Carlos Carvalhal’s side would provide stern opposition. Unfortunately for the affable Portuguese manager, there are no replays at the Quarter Final stage and, having seen off Wolves, Notts County, and Sheffield Wednesday over two games on their run to this point, the Swans would need to get their lines right first time. Carvalhal picked as strong a team as injuries and suspension would allow, with both Ayew brothers, Wilfried Bony and Leroy Fer all unavailable for selection, though the decision to rest Lukasz Fabianski – currently in a rich vein of form – and give Kristoffer Nordtfelt the nod in goal was one surley borne of loyalty – the Swedish stopper has made all ten of his appearances for the Swans this season in the cup competitions. There was a return to the Liberty Stadium for Michel Vorm, given a run out in place of Hugo Lloris in the Tottenham goal, though Fernando Llorente was only named on the bench with in-form forward Heung-Min Son preferred to lead the line in place of Harry Kane. The Swans had only lost twice since Carvalhal’s appointment in December, though one of those defeats came at home to Spurs and the early stages suggested Mauricio Pochettino’s side were looking to make it two from three. With Tottenham dominating possession and edging further towards Nordtfelt’s goal, the opener arrived in the eleventh minute as Christian Eriksen unleashed a crisp strike from the edge of the box. Lucas Moura then forced a decent save from the Swans ‘keeper and Son saw his effort ruled out for offside – though not before a lengthy VAR stoppage to confirm what everyone, including the linesman, had seen. On the stroke of half-time Erik Lamela tricked his way past two defenders before firing a shot into the bottom corner, beyond a statuesque Nortdfelt, to double Tottenham’s advantage and put their foot in the door of the semis. The visitors dominance continued into the second half, and Eriksen rounded off the performance just past the hour with another exquisite twenty yard effort, and Swansea’s hopes of cup glory dived beneath the surface for another season.
Manchester United and Chelsea, still both reeling from their Champions League exits this week, faced Brighton and Hove Albion and Leicester City respectively, with neither representing straightforward ties. In the event two headers, one in each half, from Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, was enough to see United safely through, while Chelsea required extra time to navigate their way out of the King Power with a semi-final place. The incisive finishing of Alvaro Morata and Pedro enough to see off Leicester in 120 minutes.
…while Hughes provides the Spark for a Saints Semi.
Mark Hughes found himself parachuted in at St Mary’s in a bid to save an ailing Southampton side from relegation after the Saint board finally lost patience with Mauricio Pellegrino following last week’s defeat at Newcastle. Ironically, Hughes had been out of work since overseeing his Stoke City side knocked out at the Third Round stage of this season’s competition by League Two Coventry City but, having spent two seasons at The Dell in the late 90s and, more pertinently, being available at short notice, the short-tempered Welshman was identified as the man to dig Southampton out of the hole they currently find themselves in. But first, a cup quarter final against this season’s surprise package. Wigan Athletic have proved formidable opposition this season, not least in League one where they’ve lost just two games at home this campaign. With their cup run and The Weather We’ve Been Having playing havoc with their league schedule, Paul Cook’s side have found themselves drop out of the automatic promotion places, though two wins from their three games in hand on leaders Blackburn Rover will see the Latics return to the top of the table, and besides – it’s been a glorious journey to the quarters. Having let a lead slip away at Bournemouth, Wigan soundly trounced the south coast side in the replay, before outplaying David Moyes’ imploding West Ham team in the fourth round and becoming only the third side in all competitions to beat Manchester City in the fifth. Hughes resisted resting players for the Premier League run-in, naming a strong XI in a lesser-spotted 4-4-2 formation, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Guido Carrillo being partnered up front for the first time. Having weathered a first half in which Wigan looked the Premier League side, Saints took the lead in the 62nd minute through a rare and scrappy Pierre-Emile Hojberg goal. Gabbiadini had the opportunity to make the game safe when Nathan Redmond was tripped by Dan Burn, but Christopher Walton in the Wigan goal – excellent all game – batted away the Italian’s penalty with a firm left hand to keep the League One side in the game. With the hosts pushing for an equaliser late on, Southampton broke forward and right-back Cedric found himself accelerating towards goal on the left flank, and calmly slotted a shot across Walton to send Southampton to the semi-finals. It’s Saints’ first appearance at this stage since 2003, as they made their way to the final only to lose out to Arsenal, while Hughes makes his first semi-final appearance since 2007. That season his Blackburn Rovers side were knocked out at Old Trafford by Chelsea. Guess who the draw pitted Southampton against.
The scorelines don’t tell the whole story…
Besides Tottenham’s dominant display at the Liberty Stadium, one thing that united this weekend’s ties was how undoubtedly close the contests were, given that each had a clearly defined ‘favourite’. Though Southampton’s margin of victory at Wigan could have been more than two, Hughes’ side were lucky to go in level at half-time after a first half in which the Latics overran their hierarchically superior opponents. With very little going Saints’ way in the first forty-five, the League One side enjoyed 55% possession, and mustered eight shots on goal compared to their visitors’ paltry two, with a corner count of 10:0 in favour of the Latics underlining the pressure on Alex McCarthy’s goal. The two best chances of the half fell to Nathan Byrne and Will Grigg, but neither could make the most of their opportunities, and the guile of Nick Powell proved to be a bigger miss than expected for Wigan, as Saints double bolted the door and resolved to play on the counter. At Old Trafford too, there was a game of two halves as Brighton eased themselves in to the challenge against Manchester United and, despite finding themselves a goal down at the break, were still in the tie going into the second half. Happy to concede possession to a side who struggle to know what to do with it, Brighton enjoyed just 36% of the ball in the second half of their tie, but still managed to create a host of chances to keep Sergio Romero busy. Jurgen Locadia gave the Argentinian ‘keeper a glimpse of things to coming early in the second half as he swiveled on the edge of the area and fired a shot towards the top corner that Romero was forced to tip over. Pascal Groß, Locadia and substitute Glenn Murray all had further chances to bring Brighton level, but with their first effort on goal in the second half Matic settled the game for Jose Mourinho’s men. Leicester City endured a similar afternoon of wondering ‘what if?’ against Chelsea. The Foxes were the architects of their own downfall, not least due to the unforced errors that led to both Chelsea goals. Finding his side on the counter attack, with three-on-two and surging into the final third, Kelechi Iheanacho – still yet to justify the £25m Leicester splashed out on him in the summer, played a woefully underhit pass behind Riyad Mahrez, and with the Algerian struggling to maintain possession, Chelsea countered the counter, and Willian delivered a delicious ball to Morata, slicing the Foxes defence in half and allowing the misfiring Spaniard to give the visitors the lead. The errors from Claude Puel’s team weren’t exclusively defensive, and Jamie Vardy may well have nightmares about his miscued header ballooning over the bar as he found himself unmarked and ten yards out. A goal for the home side always looked likely as they peppered Willy Caballero’s goal throughout the second half, and when it finally came it took two efforts before Vardy buried the ball on the rebound. The brain farts weren’t done there however, and on the stroke of half-time in extra-time, Kasper Schmeichel needlessly rushed off his line to punch N’Golo Kante’s cross away, and the towering 5’5’’ frame of Pedro beat the Leicester ‘keeper to it and saw hit header roll into the unguarded net. Perhaps on another weekend we’d have seen Leicester, Brighton and Wigan progress to the semis, but as it is Tottenham are going to have to earn their trophy.
…but the draw provides plenty of #narrative.
By the time the FA Cup reaches the semi-final stage all the good storylines have been spent and we’re left with two or three of the strongest teams in the competition and a couple of wildcards. That doesn’t necessarily point to straightforward results or dull games – last season’s meeting between Spurs and Chelsea was a cracker, and Aston Villa surprised everyone in 2015 when they knocked out Liverpool – but more often than not the competition becomes a little predictable by this point. However, the draw did manage to throw up a couple of ties that do offer the tantalising prospect of subtext, along with the potential of a decent looking final. Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United sees the meeting of two managers desperate to win something this season in order to validate their positions. The pressure may weigh a little lighter on Pochettino, whose project at Tottenham is certainly ongoing, provided PSG don’t swoop in for his services in the summer, but he, along with Jurgen Klopp, finds himself judged on trophies above all else by certain members of the press. Having instilled a philosophy and style of play at Spurs, transforming them into regular title-contenders, the onus is now on him to back that up with silverware – and with Manchester City and Liverpool both out of the running, he may not get a better chance than this. In the opposite dugout, its been a bizarre season for Jose Mourinho. United are looking a good shout for second in the league, United’s highest position since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but should he fail to secure the FA Cup it may be considered a campaign of failure. The surprise defeat to Sevilla brought renewed scrutiny on his Old Trafford reign that has at times been uninspiring to say the least. The “treble” of last season is now a distant memory, and Mourinho’s biggest test lays in wait.
In the other semi-final, Mark Hughes has the opportunity to upset the applecart against the club he last won the cup with, as Southampton were drawn against Chelsea. The Blues look strong favourites to make the final with Saints the lowest rank side left in the competition, but it wouldn’t be the first time this season Antonio Conte’s side have received a shock. The back-to-back league defeats against Bournemouth and Watford loosened the champions’ grip on a top four spot, and there’s a feeling that inertia has set in at Stamford Bridge, as it so often does towards the end of a manager’s reign. Conte is likely to be moving on at the end of the season, but for a man who was the epitome of a winner as a player, the Italian won’t want to bow out with a whimper. The chance to put one over Mourinho in the final would offer the perfect farewell, too.