Can anyone other than Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea go all the way in the FA Cup this season?
Only three sides outside of the established ‘big six’ have lifted the cup in over a quarter of a century while the last Championship team to win the famous old tournament was West Ham in 1980.
These depressing truths don’t bode especially well for Nottingham Forest as they prepare for their first quarter-final in any major competition since 1996 when paired with Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup. Then there’s the small matter of their opponents this weekend.
Liverpool have only lost twice on their travels in their last 25 fixtures across all competitions and focusing solely on 2021/22, have scored an average of 2.6 goals per away game keeping clean sheets in 52% of them. Up front they are more reliant than ever on their three-pronged attack to get on the score-sheet with 76.5% of their goal-haul this term deriving from these positions, and for others that could be construed as a shortcoming but not for Jurgen Klopp’s creation which is designed to function in this manner. Conversely, it feels like the more they lean on Salah, Mane, Jota and Diaz’s firepower the better the Reds are, so long as their forwards produce the goods.
And right now, they are absolutely producing them, and regularly so. Mo Salah has been directly involved in a goal every 78 minutes this season while Sadio Mane’s chance conversion rate is only marginally behind the Egyptian. Luis Diaz has settled immediately, looking dangerous every time he is on the ball.
At the back meanwhile Joel Matip has been outstanding of late. It is difficult enough to beat Liverpool with Virgil Van Dijk an impenetrable force. Now there’s two of them.
Worse yet for Steve Cooper’s men, these pivotal players will very likely feature with Liverpool clearly placing greater emphasis on domestic cup competitions this time out than in previous years. It’s pertinent too that this is the Reds last remaining commitment in March.
All of which means it’s slim pickings when identifying any hope for the hosts. A repeat of their high-intensity displays against Arsenal and Leicester in earlier rounds is of course essential but Forest are weakened by the absence of Lewis Grabban who boasted a better than one-in-two strike-rate until he succumbed to an ankle injury.
That Forest have kept six clean sheets in their last 10 league games is certainly a positive, as too is their recent average of 13 attempts on goal per 90. Perhaps their biggest cause for optimism is that Klopp’s side have conceded against Shrewsbury, Cardiff and Norwich to reach this point. At least there’s that.
If Forest feel fated to exit at the last eight stage against Premier League opposition the same can be said of Middlesbrough who entertain a Chelsea set-up that appears to be propelled by a siege mentality at present in response to their substantial problems off the pitch. It will be interesting to see how long this lasts for but certainly for the time being it is in our best interests as punters to focus on the prolificacy of Kai Havertz and not be distracted by talk of credit cards being frozen resulting in Thomas Tuchel siphoning petrol from an abandoned Roller in the club car park to ensure his side reaches the North-East.
Havertz has scored five and assisted once in his last five outings and is evidently relishing his more centralised role. Chelsea meanwhile have lost only once in the last two months, that being a drawn-out affair in the League Cup final.
Boro have history with the Blues in this tournament and not just from their final loss in 1997. There have been a further two exits by Chelsea’s hand since and both times they felt hard done by yet it’s hard to see past this trend continuing.
Up front, their two January loan signings, Aaron Connoly and Foralin Balogun have both failed to ignite and Boro’s 1-0 victory over Spurs in the last round was one of only three clean sheets kept since Boxing Day. This is largely because they’ve picked up a worrying habit of conceding early with eight of their last 15 concessions coming inside half an hour.
Which leaves us with the two all-Premier League match-ups and naturally Crystal Palace should be fancied to progress past a beleaguered Everton who are currently completely in the mud. The Toffees have won just two of their last 20 league fixtures and haven’t scored for 372 minutes. Relegation surely beckons at this rate.
Palace, by contrast, successfully nullified Manchester City on Monday evening to extend on their fine form that has seen their chief threat Wilfried Zaha get back among the goals. Michael Olise meanwhile is one of only three players under the age of 21 to reach double figures this term with goals and assists and the young talent is always a pleasure to watch.
So why is there a nagging feeling that the visitors will upend all logic? Is it solely because we’ve witnessed this phenomenon many times over before, when a team struggling in the league finds a release in the cup? Perhaps, but when the odds in Everton’s favour are so broad let’s roll the dice and go with it.
The last quarter final features a Saints side that have held Manchester City to two draws already this season, out-playing them in patches. Sadly for the hosts however their output has dropped dramatically in recent weeks, with goals flying in left, right and centre at the wrong end and that is manna from heaven for City after enduring back-to-back 0-0 stalemates.
Southampton have dropped 46 points from winning positions this season and no-one else comes close in this regard but the most pertinent detail ahead of this contest could be spied on the City player’s faces as they trudged off the Selhurst Park pitch incensed on Monday. It is now 32 attempts on target since Guardiola’s men last scored and someone very soon is going to get a pasting as punishment.
Can anyone other than Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea go all the way in the FA Cup this season? The short answer is no, while the wait for a Championship cup-winning fairy tale will almost certainly approach its fiftieth year.