16 Mar FA Cup Fever returns as the quarter-finals take centre stage
We are now nearing the business end of another action-packed campaign that has been full of exhilarating twists and turns.
This final stretch is undoubtedly the most important for clubs battling it out for their respective league titles or desperate trying to escape their dreaded drop zones, whilst it is also the time where each cup competition reaches its conclusion, and that is epitomised by the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend.
There are four exciting ties in prospect, with Manchester United taking on Fulham; Manchester City hosting Burnley and Sheffield United clashing with Blackburn in an all-Championship affair at Bramall Lane.
The tie which holds the most intrigue, though, is giant killers Grimsby Town – of League Two – who take on the Premier League’s in-form team Brighton. The Mariners knocked out Plymouth Argyle, who currently sit second in the division above them, Cambridge United, Burton Albion and Championship outfit Luton Town over two legs to set up a tie against Premier League side Southampton at the start of March.
Already a hugely impressive achievement, the Lincolnshire club made the pilgrimage down south hopeful but probably expectant that their magnificent run in the competition would be coming to an end. But this is the cup and, as history has always taught us, its magic knows no limit.
Paul Hurst’s side took a first-half lead via the penalty spot at St Mary’s before notching another spot-kick early into the second 45 on the south coast. The hosts did muster a slight response but it proved to be nothing but a consolation goal and Grimsby, a side ranked 83rd out of 92 in England’s top four divisions, had made history by securing their position into the last eight of the FA Cup, where this weekend Brighton stand between themselves and a spot at Wembley.
The challenge they face on Sunday is much greater than that of Southampton, however. Unlike the Saints, Brighton are a club on the up and massively achieving in the Premier League this season. The Seagulls sit seventh in the top-flight after 25 matches and are only six points off the top-four after their 1-0 win over rivals Crystal Palace on Wednesday evening.
The Premier League club have home advantage on their side but that won’t stop the roaring masses of Grimsby fans flocking to the south coast for the second time in the space of two weeks, as they look to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Roberto De Zerbi superstars.
Stranger things have indeed happened than David beating a Goliath in the oldest cup competition world football has on offer, and while the odds are stacked against the minnows from the north this weekend, the story is yet unwritten and there is plenty of time for a heroic protagonist to be born.
Fulham are another club who have impressed this season and, like Brighton, find themselves in contention for Europe at this stage albeit to a lesser extent. The Cottagers have taken the top-flight by storm, with leading man Aleksandar Mitrovic silencing his doubters and new signings Andreas Pereira and Manor Solomon hitting the ground running in SW6.
This weekend they travel to Old Trafford with a sizable challenge in front of them but it is one that they will feel confident in overcoming. United will be without talismanic midfielder Casemiro following the Brazilian’s controversial red card in the 0-0 draw with Southampton on Sunday, and whilst the Red Devils have certainly progressed under manager Erik ten Hag this season they have also shown some vulnerability in recent weeks after being held at home by the Premier League’s bottom club and unforgettably thrashed 7-0 by rivals Liverpool just a fortnight ago.
Elsewhere, Vincent Kompany will return to the stadium where he earnt legendary status throughout an illustrious career spent winning pretty much everything possible at Manchester City as his Burnley side – who are flying at the top of the Championship and will relish the chance of furthering their cup run – take on Pep Guardiola’s star-studded cavalry.
The student meets the master with only one spot in the semi-final up for grabs: who are you backing to come out on top?