PREVIEW: The Road to Wembley

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City cruised past Vincent Kompany’s Burnley on Saturday, cementing the first spot in the semifinals of this season’s FA Cup. With three spots left to play for on Sunday, six teams battled out for their chance of glory under the famous Wembley arch.

Sheffield United v Blackburn Rovers

A side from the 2nd tier will make an FA Cup Semi-Final – the first time that’s happened in 8 seasons! With four teams outside of the top flight competing in the quarterfinals, there was always a decent chance of two of them being drawn together, and without a ball being kicked at this stage of the competition, either United or Rovers will become the first Championship team to visit Wembley in this competition since Reading did so in the 2014-15 season.

Blackburn Rovers have some serious FA Cup pedigree, boasting several long-lasting records of the oldest football competition in the world. Rovers have the joint-most consecutive wins of the competition, winning three back-to-back FA Cups between 1884 and 1886. During that period, Rovers set the record of most consecutive matches without defeat: a whopping 22! Billy Townley became the first player to score an FA Cup final hattrick in 1980 whilst playing for the Riversiders, in a 6-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. That 1980 final set a record for the most goals scored in an FA Cup final, being equaled 63 years later – but not yet beaten.

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Sheffield United have been integral to the history of the FA Cup, and English football in general. The Blades have won 4 FA Cups, in 1898-99, 1901-02, 1914-15, and 1924-25; placing as runners up in 1900-01 and 1935-36 also. United last reached the current stage of this competition during a disastrous 2020-21 season, where they were relegated from the Premier League in last position, and have remained in the Championship since. This could all be about to change though, with automatic promotion on the horizon.

Both sides have defeated Premier League opposition en-route to the final 8. Sheffield United compiled even more misery on Tottenham Hotspur after a spirited 1-0 victory. Iliman Ndiaye made the difference that day, scoring an incredible solo goal only six minutes after coming off the bench. The Senegalese attacker has been the biggest offensive threat for the Blades this season, scoring 12 goals and assisting 8. Rovers own danger man Ben Brereton-Diaz was unavailable for their 2-1 victory over 2020-21 FA Cup champions Leicester City, but will make his return from suspension in time for the quarterfinal matchup. The Chilean international may have been quieter in front of goal this season, but is no less of a threat. With the closest gap in league positioning of any of the four quarterfinal fixtures, this all-Championship affair will be a tight one!

Brighton v Grimsby

Grimsby Town become the first League 2 team to reach the FA Cup Quarter-Finals in 33 years! In perhaps the most interesting story of the competition so far, the Mariners defeated Premier League opposition last time out against Southampton – there was a massive gap of 64 places between the sides. Grimsby are the sole representatives from the fourth division left in the competition, and are one of four EFL clubs in the final eight. The last time four EFL clubs made it to this stage of the FA Cup was the 2007-08 season – a whopping 15 seasons ago!

The Mariners have played the most FA Cup fixtures this season out of the final eight; entering in the First Round Proper – 2 rounds before their Premier League and Championship counterparts. Their first bout was against a Plymouth Argyle side hopeful of promotion to the Championship. As expected, the League 1 team took the lead, but against the run of play, Grimsby responded in emphatic fashion – smashing in 5 goals to leave the Pilgrims stunned. Their reward was another fixture against League 1 opposition, facing Cambridge United away, where an Otis Kahn brace – including a 90th minute winner – secured victory on the road.

The Mariners completed an FA Cup hattrick of wins over third-tier opposition after beating Burton Albion 1-0. High flying Luton town were up next, and while the Championship side took Grimsby to a replay, the Hatters were eventually defeated 3-0. Rising through the ranks of English football opposition like a video game – a ‘boss battle’ against Premier League opposition was on the horizon. Victory against Southampton was secured thanks to Irish midfielder Gavan Holohan’s double from the penalty spot.

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Moving east across the south coast from Southampton, we find Brighton. The Seagulls were quick out of the blocks in the league, but when Graham Potter left to take on the Chelsea job midway through his fourth season at the AMEX, there were doubts as to whether Brighton could keep up their excellent form. Former Shakhtar Donetsk coach Roberto De Zerbi took over, and all worries were quickly quelled – as the Italian has proven to be a successful appointment so far, with Brighton continuing to challenge for European qualification. Brighton defeated reigning champions of the FA Cup – Liverpool – in the Fourth Round, with an amazing goal in injury time, courtesy of Kaoru Mitoma. The Japanese winger has absolutely burst onto the scene this season from relative obscurity; his mesmerizing dribbling ability and unconventional route to the Premier League has captivated audiences – he Brighton’s star man.

Although on paper this game looks over before it’s already begun, I wouldn’t write off Grimsby just yet, they have overcome competition from leagues above them multiple times this season, and Town will have no fear coming into this one. The Mariners will equal their best FA Cup finish, should they overcome their opposition from three leagues above. Brighton have never won this competition either, although they have reached the final once in 1983. The stage is set. Could we see one of the greatest upsets in FA Cup history here?

Manchester United v Fulham

The Carabao Cup Champions are back on the hunt for more domestic silverware! Surprisingly, this is the only all-PL quarterfinal this season – so maybe this match doesn’t carry as much of that fabled ‘FA Cup magic’ as the other four. After all, we are in the very serious final stages of the competition – it’s about time to separate out the contenders from the pretenders. Both teams have enough quality to be considered genuine threats for the trophy, and will seek to make this match a competitive one!

As previously mentioned, the 12-time FA Cup winners have already claimed a domestic competition trophy this term – convincingly defeating Newcastle 2-0 in the EFL Cup Final. Despite constant discourse surrounding his best position, Marcus Rashford has excelled through the centre this season. The England international is making his mark in almost every match, with 1 goal involvement per 90 (0.8 goals and 0.2 assists) across all competitions. Adding Casemiro has proven to be a masterstroke from Erik Ten Hag – with 5 Champions League titles to his name, the Brazilian is a serial winner. He has bought not only his mentality to United, but his defensive steel too; absolutely dominating in the middle of the park, with his tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, and aerials won all being in the 89th percentile or higher in the Premier League this season. His stability is key for the Red Devils – however, a reckless challenge against Southampton sees Casemiro suspended for this fixture.

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Fulham are having a brilliant season. Despite only winning promotion from the Championship in 2022, Marco Silva has steered his side comfortably clear from the relegation zone – they are doing so well that the Cottagers are actually genuine contenders for a spot in Europe. Despite having the oldest squad in the league (weighted by minutes played), the Cottagers can often be a fast and exhilarating team to watch. Fulham favour attacking down the wing and crossing into the box – they have the 2nd most crosses into the penalty area in the Premier League this season. This style of play is unsurprising considering who plays as their number 9: Aleksandar Mitrovic. The six-foot-two Serbian is a menace in the box, winning 4.62 ariels duels per 90 – a success rate of over 50%. However, the star striker hasn’t scored since January 3rd, and he’ll need to turn that form around if the Cottagers are to win this tie.

Erik Ten Hag has transformed Manchester United. A trophy and Champions League qualification should mark this season as successful for the Red Devils, but their notoriously demanding fans will expect more in the FA Cup and Europa League. An embarrassing league loss against historical rivals Liverpool hasn’t done the Old Trafford side any favours – and Fulham have already exceeded their expectations to get to this stage, so they will dream of a first ever major trophy win.

History may have United as clear favourites, but modern times have bought these 2 quarterfinalists closer. This is the Cottagers’ best chance at major silverware since their unlikely Europa League run to the final in 2009-10.