About a month ago, I discussed Wycombe traveling to White Hart Lane—in its final year of existence, no less—to take on Tottenham Hotspur. Wycombe, of course, resides within the fourth tier of English football. Moreover, a full 70 spots below Spurs. The sentiment, if nothing else, was magical. The performance, if nothing else, was entirely heartwarming. And they almost pulled it off, too.
Look, in some capacity, FA Cup magic is real. Perhaps not for every fan, or even every club, but it’s there. We saw it during the fourth round weekend over and over again. It started with struggling Championship side Wolverhampton taking out a mostly B-squad Liverpool. It nearly continued when Wycombe took a 2-0 lead at White Hart Lane, and a 3-2 lead in the 84th minute—only to fall in heartbreaking fashion (4-3). Then the non-league sides, Sutton United and Lincoln City, would do their thing.
And sure, maybe it will come to a screeching halt following the fifth round. Maybe it all comes crashing down, and swiftly. After all, a non-league side has never advanced past this stage in the FA Cup before. But, what if? Lincoln City will travel to Burnley while Sutton United get to host the Gunners. I’ll give the former a better shot, but it’s going to be a tirelessly uphill battle regardless.
But here’s what’s most interesting: the fifth round draw sets us up for an all-EPL quarterfinal stage… if Leicester City win their Wednesday fixture against Derby County. (No guarantees.) You know, the clubs who definitely take this tournament less seriously than the lower leagues. And before you think I’m saying that’s a bad thing, I’m not. Not necessarily, anyway. But sometimes it makes you wonder how random the draw really is. Here’s what we’ve got:
- Burnley versus Lincoln City (non-league).
- Middlesbrough versus Oxford United (League One).
- Millwall (League One) versus Leicester/Derby.
- Huddersfield Town (Championship) versus Manchester City.
- Wolverhampton (Championship) versus Chelsea.
- Fulham (Championship) versus Tottenham.
- Blackburn (Championship) versus Manchester United.
- Sutton United (non-league) versus Arsenal.
Now I’m not going to say every PL team is set up for a cake walk. Not so, particularly against the Championship sides. That said, I can’t imagine most Prem sides playing their best XI. Maybe you’ll see more of that from Burnley and Boro, but four of those fixtures—comprised of clubs making up the top six—are screaming out for rotation. Of course, it would be foolish to assume all EPL sides go through without issue. It’s just one of those draws that make you scratch your head and go, ‘How?’
Side-note—if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of random draws, here’s a fun exercise: How many UCL semi-final draws have set up a potential same-country final over the years? Most recently you’d have to go back to 2010-11 to avoid such a thing, when Schalke took on Manchester United and Real squared off against Barcelona. But back to the FA Cup.
Look, in an ideal world clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City and even Liverpool would like to mount a realistic title chase. But with 14 matches to go Chelsea are nine points clear—currently the biggest gap of any of the five major leagues—and at the moment, they still look relatively unbeatable. Their struggles at the beginning of the season appear to have come full circle after their 3-1 dismantling of Arsenal over the weekend. Additionally, outside of the FA Cup, the Blues only have to worry about the Premier League the rest of the way.
With the exception of Liverpool, who’ve more or less seen their title hopes fade away entirely this calendar year, the same cannot be said for the others. That’s right—even Manchester United, who rest one point below the Reds in the standings, have the Europa League to worry about. As do Tottenham Hotspur, who essentially played a youth academy side mixed with their bench against Wycombe in the fourth round before relying on Dele Alli and Mousa Dembélé around the hour mark to gain control. And even then, it was a struggle.
They’re nine points off the Blues, and all they’ve spoken about in recent weeks is how they want to win the title, how they need to push to win the title. Don’t expect a strong side against Fulham on February 19. And three days prior, don’t expect their A-team against Gent in the Round of 32. After all, this is a side who more or less gave up against Dortmund in their tie last season to push for the league title.
Manchester City finally won a couple matches recently that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing them win over the years, but they’re still 10 points off the top. Not to mention, Pep Guardiola already conceded the league title after Everton smashed them 4-0 a few weeks ago. And while a UCL draw against Monaco in the Round of 16 may look favorable, this isn’t last year’s Monaco. Just ask Tottenham. Or, look at last year’s standings. The current Ligue 1 leaders are already just 13 points off their mark from last season—with 15 matches remaining.
What about Arsenal? Every season for the past two decades we’ve come to expect a top-four finish. With 14 matches remaining the Gunners sit in fourth, but Liverpool—despite their recent struggles—and United, are still breathing down their necks. Also, isn’t it about time Arsenal gets past the Round of 16 in the Champions League? Fortunately for them, they’ll be taking on non-league Sutton United. Does that mean the hosts will roll over? Of course not. For Sutton, there is nothing bigger at the moment than this cup tie. But the Gunners can probably get away with playing a glorified youth side come February 20.
And maybe, just maybe, the fourth round used all of the magic up. I mean there was Wolves over Liverpool; Lincoln City over Brighton; Millwall over Watford; Fulham convincingly over Hull City; Sutton over Leeds. And as we’ve covered, Wycombe coming up just short at White Hart Lane. So maybe the magic needed a break. Or, we’re going to see some relaxed sides pay for taking it easy on their lesser opponents. But if each favorite goes through we’re looking at a mighty conventional quarterfinal, and there will be no magic to be found.