5:00 AM ET
Tom HamiltonSenior Writer
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
The FA Cup returns this weekend (stream games live on ESPN+) and, from the 736 teams who registered for a shot at the oldest club competition in the world back at the start of this elongated season, just eight remain.
There’s a familiar feeling to the quarterfinal draw, which was meant to take place in March but was postponed because of COVID-19. For the first time since the 2005-06 campaign, the final eight of the FA Cup all come from the Premier League. But with Liverpool already wrapping up the title and teams battling an intense fixture schedule and pressure to avoid the drop or secure hard-fought Champions League spots, it will be fascinating to see how they manage the madness.
The quarterfinals kick off on Saturday with bottom-club Norwich welcoming Manchester United (12:25 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). On Sunday, Arsenal travel to Sheffield United (7:55 a.m. ET, ESPN+), while Leicester City host Chelsea (10:55 a.m. ET, ESPN+). The quartet are completed at St James’ Park, where Newcastle United will aim to halt in-form Manchester City (1:20 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
Expect the big guns to throw everything at the FA Cup
The Premier League title race is over. Manchester City can’t, realistically, be caught in second place but could be banned from the Champions League, so expect Pep Guardiola’s team to go full bore for their match at Newcastle on Sunday. Guardiola admitted midweek he had “one eye” on their quarterfinal clash and described it as a “final,” even before they played Chelsea.
It’ll be fascinating to see how they cope without prolific striker Sergio Aguero, who underwent surgery this week. Gabriel Jesus is a natural replacement and was rested against Chelsea until the second half, but it’s been suggested they may deploy midfielder Ilkay Gundogan as a “false nine” to bring some physicality and guile up front. Having scored eight goals against Arsenal and Burnley, City will be pumped up for this and, with the title gone, a spot in the FA Cup final would be a grand send-off for the ageless David Silva.
For Chelsea and Manchester United, there’s still plenty at stake in their seasons, but you can expect them to go strong at the cup. United are away at Norwich on Saturday — and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keeping his team unchanged until the 78th minute against Sheffield United on Wednesday, he may rotate a few of his impressive front line. The likes of Andreas Pereira and Daniel James may get starts, but there will be few risks taken.
The same goes for Chelsea. They beat Manchester City on Thursday, but Frank Lampard would love to bring the FA Cup back to Stamford Bridge with Chelsea last winning it in 2018. Expect them to field a team combining their bright young things and the old timers as they look to send Pedro off with some silverware.
And Arsenal have nothing else to play for. For once, all the big boys want this one.
Can Leicester return to the pre-lockdown Leicester?
Leicester have looked a shadow of their pre-lockdown selves since the Premier League resumed, drawing both of their games. They’ll have more than one eye on the top flight as they battle for the Champions League spots — they’re third, four points clear of Chelsea in fourth — but there’s plenty on the line in Sunday’s match at home against Chelsea. Leicester have never won the FA Cup and, though their history will be forever headlined by their remarkable Premier League triumph in 2016, Brendan Rodgers would love to bring the trophy to the King Power Stadium for the first time.
To knock over Lampard’s Chelsea, they’ll need Jamie Vardy to rediscover his scoring boots. He’s at the top of the Premier League goal scoring charts on 19 but has just two goals in the past 11 games. There’ll also be plenty of attention on Leicester left-back Ben Chilwell, who is on Chelsea’s radar for the summer’s transfer market, and their other stars like James Maddison and the up-and-coming Harvey Barnes.
You have to feel for Newcastle…
Newcastle contest their first FA Cup quarterfinal in the Mike Ashley era and dream of ending a trophy drought that dates back to 1969 but, as they entertain Guardiola’s side, it’ll be bittersweet for the Newcastle fans. They have endured all sorts in the past few years, with failed takeover after takeover running alongside anger at the way Ashley has run the club.
Sunday’s match should be a celebration at their magnificent St James’ Park — they have played well since the Premier League resumed, with Allan Saint-Maximin a constant threat — but it’ll be eerie seeing this knockout match play out in front of an empty stadium.
Welcome relief or unwanted distraction for Arsenal?
Usually the announcement of new contracts triggers excitement and welcome relief for supporters, but when Arsenal handed a new batch out during the week, the fans reacted with a mixture of frustration and anger. On his day, David Luiz can command a team and carry them forward, but when things don’t go to plan, it normally descends into a spectacular implosion (as it did against City earlier this month), while Cedric Soares’ four-year deal raised many eyebrows considering his age and the fact the injured full-back has yet to play for the club during his loan spell from Southampton.
A trip to Sheffield United is probably the last thing Mikel Arteta wants, but an FA Cup triumph would bring smiles around North London, instead of the usual feeling of deja vu as Arsenal’s season threatens to peter out. The Gunners have nine first-team players injured — including impressive goalkeeper Bernd Leno — are dismally 9th in the league and need some cheer.
Will there be a surprise?
It’s hard to judge whether Sheffield United knocking out Arsenal would be an upset. The Blades are higher in the league and are at home, but it still feels like that would upset the apple cart a little if they manage to get one over Arteta’s team. Manchester United should get through their tricky visit to relegation-threatened Norwich City on Saturday (it seems a long time ago that Teemu Pukki was banging in goals at the start of the season); you can flip a coin to determine who wins out of Leicester and Chelsea (we’re going for a Chelsea win, just); while Man City should come away from an eerily quiet St James’ Park with a triumph over Newcastle.
But the beauty of the FA Cup is that, in knockout football, form and logic are frequently thrown to one side. The only thing guaranteed is we will see thrilling, relentless and pulse-quickening action this weekend.
Will Zoom workouts have kept players fit?
During lockdown, players trained individually at home and then went back to their clubs in dribs and drabs as the restrictions were lifted. The clubs’ fitness staff did their utmost to keep the players match ready, but there is no substitute for the intensity of the Premier League and knockout football. This weekend’s FA Cup will be a real test of the players’ fitness. Take Sheffield United: Sunday’s quarterfinal at home against Arsenal will be their fourth match in 12 days. It’ll stretch their squad as well as hamstring durability. We’ve already seen teams wilt after having a man sent off, so discipline will be essential if they are to stay at full throttle in this weekend’s ties.