The FA Cup, widely considered to be one of the most prestigious and historic domestic cup competitions in world football, is set to re-commence this weekend, with an intriguing set of Fifth Round ties expected to light the blue touch paper.
There have already been many surprises, with League One team Bradford and Preston North End making headlines for their giant-killing exploits, particularly the former who knocked out Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. With just over half of the sixteen teams left in the draw coming from the Premier League, it shows just how unpredictable the competition can be and how lower league teams have stepped up to the plate.
The stand-out tie of the Fifth Round could produce even more fireworks, with Championship leaders Middlesbrough set to travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal. FA cup wins are like buses for both teams who have significantly benefitted from their cup runs in the league performances and results, but it would be some achievement for Middlesbrough to put the defending champions and favourites out.
Six wins in their last seven games resembles the superb vein of form that Arsenal have been in since New Year’s Day, with the North London derby defeat the only blotch on their otherwise perfect copybook. Arsenal Wenger’s side have rediscovered their ruthless streak at just the right time, with their wonderful free-flowing style producing the sort of results that have significantly improved their chances of finishing in the Premier League top four. Victories against Hull and Brighton have put last year’s winners into the Fifth Round, although the game at the AMEX Community Stadium highlighted Arsenal’s main weakness; although they can score with unerring ease when on song, the Gunners can be defensively vulnerable and make numerous errors. It is this side of their game that will be integral to whether they progress to the Quarter Finals, with Middlesbrough likely to take a ‘nothing to lose’ approach and have a real go. Their chances of progression may be hampered by the potential absence of Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey, who may join Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy in watching Arsenal perform from the stands.
Playing against a team who have lost just twice in twenty-five games should be more than enough for Arsenal to know that Middlesbrough are certainly no pushovers. Their 2-1 victory at Blackpool took them top of the Championship at just the right time in the season, and although there is still plenty of football to be played between now and May, they have all the qualities to return to the Premier League. Aitor Karanka’s side not only have the best defensive record in the Championship, but also have the ability to source goals from all areas of the pitch. More importantly, Boro showed their potential FA Cup credentials by knocking out Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on their way to drawing Arsenal in another mouth-watering away trip. Facing another top Premier League team may not be ideal, but Middlesbrough can benefit for taking the same approach as they did against Manuel Pellegrini’s team and really give it a go.