This season’s edition of the world’s most historic and prestigious domestic cup competition has seen giant killings, last-minute drama and the battles between big earners and part timers during its course so far, making it one of the most memorable in recent history. From its stretch from the preliminary stages of qualifying all the way back in August, there have been hundreds of ties between teams all over England, in addition to six from Wales and one from Guernsey, who have all battled for glory, but now only four remain. They are four very different teams who many probably wouldn’t have predicted to even get this far, but nonetheless four very worthy challengers to the throne. In our two Wembley semi-finals this weekend, we have a north-west battle with two sides that have been overshadowed by their ‘noisy neighbours’ in achievements this season, while we also look forward to a clash between two teams either side of the Thames who have tailed off in form in recent months. That’s right; for your entertainment this weekend ladies and gentlemen, its Manchester United vs Everton today (Saturday 23rd) and Watford vs Crystal Palace tomorrow; two ties that promise a lot and will deliver a whole lot more, most importantly two finalists. So who stands the best chance of reaching that final on 21st May, and even winning it? Let’s have a look at the cases for each…
Firstly, we’ll head up to the heavyweights in the red corner; our most Northern semi-finalist, a team that has for so long recently failed to deliver on good performances, a team which most people would tip to win the competition now their closest rivals have been eliminated; Manchester United. They are the self-styled ‘biggest team in the world’, adored by fans and hated by rivals, with a legacy unquestionably rich, yet a team seemingly unable to win trophies recently. A team in the shadow of the domineering success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden generation of genius and talent, incapable of yet finding a true successor to what currently seems to be a poisoned chalice and crumbling under the pressure of the fans’ unrelenting desire for silverware. There’s no question it is in the blood of true Manchester United players and fans to keep winning, after all it is what they are known for across the globe. Boasting the largest (or possibly most patient) worldwide fan base of any Premier League team past or present, their business model simply can’t survive without triumph. They need this trophy. Desperately. Without it, they would have gone three seasons without a trophy (barring the Community Shield, which David Moyes effectively picked up on behalf of Fergie) and a further 12 seasons without an FA Cup triumph. For a side that has won 11 editions of the cup, that is completely unacceptable and needs fixing now for the sake of their respectability.
So how are our (yes I am speaking as a fan now) chances? Well, at least in my opinion, they should be (fingers crossed) pretty healthy, considering our recent form compared to the other three remaining sides. Having won five or our last six matches in all competitions, we should be coming in to the game today with bags of confidence, especially considering one of those wins was 1-0 against Everton only three weeks ago. Louis van Gaal has grown a team of clean sheet specialists who aren’t afraid to play ugly to get a win, as long as our attack is up to speed on the day to capitalise on any chances. The players are established and comfortable in the system now, which is starting to come to fruition just at the right time. The defence is controlled, expansive and brave with the partnership of tough-tackling yet classy Chris Smalling and dependable, inch-perfect passer and set piece specialist Daley Blind finally proving van Gaal right for sticking by them and not signing a continentally-recognised central defender. Matteo Darmian (a bargain at the rumoured £12 million or so) is proving his worth as both a right and left back, with excellent attacking ability and growing defensive confidence, usefully versatile in a period in which injuries have forced van Gaal’s hand in these positions. The real issue is who will be the fourth defender to nail down a starting berth, whether that is on the right or left (hopefully the left considering Darmian really should be at right back). Luke Shaw has been unfortunate to miss a majority of the season, Ashley Young is inconsistent and increasingly injury-prone and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is inexperienced at this level.
These issues pester on in midfield, where nobody has really had an outstanding season for such a high-aiming side, with Morgan Schneiderlin acclimatising, Michael Carrick’s bandwagon coming to a halt and Bastian Schweinsteiger simply failing to stay fit for long periods. Don’t even talk to me about Marouane Fellaini. He’s the cult hero and the butt of all jokes, an infuriatingly comical player who is seemingly unplayable for all fans due to his cardinal sins to the beautiful game. He butchers the stereotypical image of the artistry of European midfielders in the ilk of Iniesta, Xavi, Andrea Pirlo and Ruud Gullit with his own elbows-and-all style, as if a tree had just been uprooted and given a five minute lesson in how to play football. Granted, he has his moments, but mostly it is baffling to see the reasons for which he is trusted so deeply by van Gaal.
Despite all this, I believe that the key players for United in this tie will lie in the final third of the pitch. Against an Everton side whose strengths are most obvious in offense, United will have to negate these threats by keeping the ball in the opposition half as often as possible. By doing this, they will allow the likes of Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to work their magic with the ball at their feet, with fast-moving and free-flowing attacks hopefully creating a few goals. It will certainly be a different game to the West Ham quarter-final replay last week, in which United only fed on scraps to create their goals, as I believe Everton’s openness will be their downfall. With constant pressure and high possession stats, United could outwork and outclass a mentally fragile Everton side. If we do, we should definitely have the confidence and ability to win the whole competition.
But where should Everton, our unfancied challengers in the blue corner, be pinning their hopes? Just because I think they are likely to lose today doesn’t mean that they will roll over easily by any means. In fact, they could be inspired by the current media storm over Roberto Martinez’s non-emotive and misguided reactions to their recent performances, as their players, if they have any sense of commitment, will want to prove a point not just for themselves but for their manager also. If they want to prove they are more than just a team of three (Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones) like the media’s perception of them is, they will have to go out on that Wembley pitch, work for each other and give it all they’ve got. We all know that they can switch it on or off in a moments glance, their scintillating, clinical play against Chelsea in the quarter final proving this, although on the other hand they could just as easily disappoint yet again, as their performance in the Merseyside derby showed. After the game, I had a look through the stats and was instantly shocked by the complete outclassing Liverpool handed them. 13 shots on target for Liverpool from a total of 37 attempts, whereas the whole Everton team could only muster three shots in the whole 90(+8!) minutes, all of which were off target. It’s an absolute embarrassment if that is all you can offer in probably the most important match for the supporters all season, away to your inner-city rivals.
Away from all their problems in the league this season, the cup has been an escape, and a valuable one for Martinez, who probably would’ve been removed already had he not reached this stage in the competition. Let’s not forget that Martinez has actually won the FA Cup before, in his last season with Wigan (2012/13) before jumping the sinking ship of their relegation. He surely views this competition as a safe haven, and one which he has managed to successfully mastermind a way through before, utilising his skills of rotation, man management and strong transfer knowledge to his advantage. He has attempted to do the same during his time in charge of the blue half of Liverpool, but has been constrained by less competitive budgets and diminishing resources, not being able to tie players like Gerard Deulofeu down long-term. This fact was made abundantly clear in a table released by the FA yesterday, in which the total amounts paid to agents this season were compared, and Everton were bottom in terms of spending with less than half a million pounds, which pales in comparison to the £2,329,142 average across the Premier League. Some argue he should have done better in his position, and yes while I agree he should’ve, he hasn’t really ever had the full support of the board, which has differed in direction, not allowing the club to move forwards.
If Everton do end up lifting the trophy on 21st May, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they did considering they have the fourth highest scorer (Lukaku) and the ninth highest assister (Deulofeu) in the BPL right now, it could be a job-saver for Martinez. Winning just two more matches in this competition will secure them a tidy winner’s reward package and advertise them to possible to summer signings. Lose this semi-final, and surely it spells the end for the Spaniard’s reign at Goodison Park, considering they won’t get any European football next season from their current league position.
Their key players, in my opinion, today will be Phil Jagielka and Gareth Barry, simply because they will provide the experience and calm required to succeed in game-changing situations, having both played numerous times at Wembley before. Jagielka, back in the side in place of the suspended Ramiro Funes Mori, will need to provide a real captains performance in keeping out the threats of Rashford, Martial and Rooney alongside the highly-rated yet slight liability John Stones. Barry will be right in the thick of it, up against the likes of Fellaini, Herrera or Mata, while also needed to keep a hold of Rooney in the middle of the park, so will be called on often, trusted with the responsibility nonetheless. It could be a tight battle providing these players perform.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Everton
Next we focus on the seemingly out-of-focus (at least to the media in the wake of Leicester’s exploits) yellow-and-black Hertfordshire club who have revelled under the weight of no expectation from the general public at the start of the season. Personally, I think that they have been one of the most watchable sides of the season, far more so than low-scoring Leicester, as they have dared to take risks in their play, with players like Odion Ighalo, Nathan Aké and Allan Nyom going under the radar despite their top performances. For me though, the most underrated player of any in all 20 clubs this season is Étienne Capoue, who has completely risen to the challenge of anchoring Watford’s mostly Championship-quality midfield and led by example not only in the centre of the pitch, but all over, as his work rate has shown. In his first season with the club, he has also had to recover from a demoralising two years at Tottenham, but has performed with total confidence, which must be inspired by the management. Quique Sanchez Flores also has to be one of the most ignored managers in the BPL, as his achievements in keeping Watford in and around the mid-table spots in just his first season, not just at the club but also in the whole of English football, have been outstanding. Not to mention his fashion sense, which is far above any other ‘head coach’ in the league. His rugged beard, classic scarf and woolly jumper combo is better than Tony Pulis’ unrelenting use of tracksuits any day of the week.
That’s enough about their achievements so far this season though. For Watford, their problems have come in the big games, which is surely to be expected for a team of their stature, but will have to improve if they want to break into the top half next season. Their form since the turn of the New Year has been less than impressive, but they have found solace in the cup, which has kept fans satisfied for the time being. Reaching the final of the FA Cup, considering only this time last year they were just about to guarantee automatic promotion to the Premier League, would be an amazing achievement. They have defied all expectations, especially after they basically recruited a whole new management team, first XI and subs bench during last summer’s transfer window, which most regarded as the desperate rebuilding of a Championship-quality side while they had the money available to do so. Well, somehow their players have gelled quickly enough to bring results, and the icing on the cake of their very respectable season would be the possibility to be there on the last day of the English football season to be crowned champions.
Against Crystal Palace, another side which have dramatically faded since Christmas, the Hornets should fancy their chances of reaching that showpiece match on 21st May. Considering they have the 7th best defensive record in the league this season (only conceding 40 goals from 34 games), Watford should be optimistic of keeping things tight at the back on Sunday, significantly more so against a side that have been noted for their lack of goals in campaign in the Eagles, who only have the joint sixth lowest goals scored total with 36. Having said that, Watford’s problems in front of goal have also been plain and clear, with a paltry 33 goals scored, which equates to a poor 0.97 goals a game, mainly down to the bad luck and breaking down in partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. These two were scoring goals for fun back in September and October effectively in competition with each other, but the goals have dried up recently, and for their team to stand any chance of winning on Sunday they have to perform. Without them, I honestly can’t see where the goals in their team will come from, so their finishing from chances created by the likes of Jurado and Adlène Guédioura (stepping in for the suspended Nordin Amrabat) will have to be perfect.
Personally though, I feel that this game will be dictated in midfield, with Watford’s very capable hands (and feet) of Ben Watson, Valon Behrami, Capoue or possibly Mario Suarez all looking to impose themselves on the game, claiming control of the ball in the process. All of these players are notably defensively-minded, which could prove a help or a hindrance in the match, but is yet to be seen. If they focus too much on containing the opposition, including the easily game-changing Jason Puncheon, they might find themselves cut off from their attacking options, limiting goal scoring opportunities. This is the danger for Watford, and one which has proved their downfall in recent games, so they have to smart up and encourage their players to be mindful of both sides of their duties, both defending and attacking. After all, as the old saying goes, points mean prizes. Or was that goals win matches?
Alan Pardew is another manager who will be sick of fans and critics noting the importance of goals this season. The form of Palace’s strikers this season has been absolutely appalling, with their five strikers (Dwight Gayle, Frazier Campbell, Emmanuel Adebayor, Connor Wickham and Marouane Chamakh) only bagging 7 goals together, with 5 of those coming from Wickham. They have relied deeply on their wingers Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie to create and finish chances, with Alan Pardew persisting with his tactics of making the most of their skill and pace, trying to outrun and out pass the opposition, but often failing. Why he hasn’t changed his outlook is unclear, and surely remedied with new signings in the summer, but for now he needs to make the most of what he has. It could be a case of trying to be too optimistic with a side that has only just settled into the rigours of the Premier League after three seasons, but to be successful in his occupation you have to aim as high as is humanly possible and then hope for some luck.
Some solace for Crystal Palace this season is the good form of their midfielders, with Yohan Cabaye, Mile Jedinak, James McCarthy and Joe Ledley all proving their worth with numerous leading performances. Obviously Cabaye is the standout player from those, with the ability to create something from nothing almost naturally, while the latter three are quite similar in style, often cancelling each other out when paired together. For example, when the bearded duo of Jedinak and Ledley, who are very good midfielders normally, are played together, they can have the same problem as Watford in not creating enough attacking opportunities. It’s almost a re-enactment of the problem England had for years, where they couldn’t play Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard together for fear of their play not adding anything to the team when they both do the same thing, only this time its actors aren’t of the same quality as the originals.
From my view, Palace’s key player on Sunday will surely be Jason Puncheon, as the responsibility of creating chances for both his wingers to explore the space out wide and for his striker, looking likely to be either Wickham or Adebayor right now. With Yannick Bolasie having at best a 50-50 chance at the moment of featuring in the match, Puncheon will have to step up and lead the three of Pardew’s irrepressibly favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with all of his skill and guile. He certainly has the ability to unlock Watford’s partnership of what in my opinion should be Capoue and Watson, but it is whether he is in the right mental state for the match which will be the deciding factor. Players shouldn’t have to be reminded of the importance of an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, but all these sports psychologists are employed for a reason these days. Behind Puncheon, Cabaye’s performance is surely a given, and Scott Dann’s solidity at the back is as good as you can get in the Premier League. Palace’s full backs (probably Pape Souaré and Joel Ward) and will also be a vital cog of their play, countering Watford’s pace on the wing with their own attacking capabilities, proven by Martin Kelly’s goal against Spurs earlier in the competition. In goal, Wayne Hennessey is a slight liability, and of course we know their problems up front. It could be a tight tie between two bottom-half teams desperate to reach a history-defining final. On Sunday, as we hear London calling, the nation will listen.
Score Prediction: Watford 1-0 Crystal Palace
So there you go, those are my breakdowns of the two games and my predictions. I could be totally wrong, but the beauty of predictions, as is the beauty of football, is that you never know quite what is going to happen. Leave a comment below of what you think the scores will be, who will win the whole competition and enjoy the two games!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!