The 2014 – 2015 FA Cup competition began in earnest when the first First Round match between non-league Warrington Town and League Two Exeter City took place on 7th November 2014. A fantastic 1 – 0 for Warrington was the first of many successes for non-league teams in the build-up to the Third Round draw where the introduction of Premier League teams is when the drama truly begins in the world’s oldest football knockout trophy.
Bookies, fans, pundits and the media are very keen each year to make odds and predictions on ‘Giant-Killings’ and there has certainly been many of them over the years from early ties e.g. Hereford beating Newcastle in 1972, all the way through to the Final itself such as when Wigan beat Manchester City in 2013 to lift the famous cup. Anything can happen in the FA Cup when it weaves its unique magic but there are also many certainties and it is no surprise that wealthy teams such as Chelsea have won four out of the last eight contests.
So the question to be posed is: who will win the 2016 FA Cup? There are many factors to take into consideration when trying to provide an answer such as team form, squad size, luck, home draws, etc. With these in mind, here are my ‘Top 10’ picks from the remaining sixty-four teams (as of 8th December 2014) whom I believe could be victorious this year.
It may be stating the obvious but Jose Mourinho rarely gives the impression that he enters his teams into a competition just for fun. Chelsea’s pedigree in the cup over the past eight years has been nothing short of brilliant (as mentioned above with regards to their four wins in the period) and Mourinho has the tools at his disposal to mount a challenge again. Their Third Round draw against Watford looks straightforward enough whilst their squad can be rotated to the extent that top players like Germany International Andre Schurrle and French goalscorer Loic Remy can be used for their freshness in the cup after playing only rarely thus far in the Premier League. Have no doubt, the odds will be short for Chelsea to an eighth FA Cup to their trophy cabinet.
Choosing The Hammers as a potential cup winning team might surprise quite a few readers but when you look at their form in the second half of 2014, plus their evolved style of playing this season, then it should not be so difficult to imagine. Manager Sam Allardyce was roundly criticised by his fans over the past couple of years for playing a ‘long-ball’ tactic that, although successful in keeping the club in the Premier League, was proving to be dull to watch for the paying punters. To his credit, Allardyce confessed to the media in the summer that he would make West Ham play a more dynamic, open pattern of playing and this has paid dividends as they currently sit 4th in the Premier League. Nine years has passed since their last appearance at Wembley and they will be looking for a good cup run to accompany their improved league position.
The Europa League appears to have demanded the bulk of The Toffees’ attention this season as they have produced their best form in the tournament to the detriment of their Premier League performances. This observation might back up a popular opinion amongst fans that Roberto Martinez has decided to place all his ambitious eggs into one basket in an effort to win some silverware to add to his FA Cup medal as manager of Wigan Athletic in 2013. The Everton fans been deprived of a trophy since their 1995 FA Cup victory and very nearly reached the Champions League last season as Martinez has turned them into a team to be reckoned with. Showcase signings like Romelu Lukaku for £28m has put a certain amount of pressure to deliver and with a tasty Third Round clash with one of my other favourites, West Ham (see above), at Goodison Park then at least I will have chosen a pick that reaches the Fourth Round!
Spurs have had a typically indifferent first half of the season as they continue to frustrate their own fans in droves with regular managerial changes and a huge squad of talented yet underwhelming players. The hopes are that their appointment of Argentinian manager, Mauricio Pochettino, last summer will eventually be fruitful but Chairman Daniel Levy is known for his knee-jerk reactions so it seems obligatory to the watching media that Pochettino can work his hardest to earn success as soon as possible. Since the sale of their ex-star player, Gareth Bale, to Real Madrid a couple of years ago, Spurs have purchased some excellent footballers with the profit such as Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado. Perhaps they can finally show their true colours in the FA Cup for a club that has won the famous trophy an impressive eight times in their history.
Their Welsh rivals, Cardiff City, won the FA Cup in 1927 and have reached the Final three times in total but Swansea have unfortunately never managed to go all the way in the competition. In recent times however, The Swans have won their first major trophy (The League Cup in 2013) and become an established Premier League team that play terrific passing football and seem to have become even grittier since appointing a British manager (ex-player Garry Monk)}. In Wilfried Bony, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Routledge, they are blessed with attacking match-winners who will be odds-on to beat their lowly League Two opposition (Oxford United or Tranmere Rovers) in the Third Round. With a raucous following and plenty of neutral admirers, Swansea City would be a welcome finalist and I believe that this could be the year a Welsh team etches their name onto the base of the cup again.
In a current ‘period of transition’, the most successful English team of the past twenty years do not seem to strike as much fear into their opponents as they once did with regularity. Overtaken in status by the uprising of their neighbours, Manchester City, the focus on Louis Van Gaal’s team has been one of apathy since they failed to qualify for the Champions League under Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, in the previous season. With this in mind, perhaps the FA Cup would be the perfect tonic for fans of the Old Trafford club as they could silently make progress without the attention of the media. Still possessing fantastic footballers such as Rooney and Mata whilst playing in a carefree blasé style under ‘LvG’, The Red Devils are a danger to any opposition and could be given decent odds with the bookies.
After losing many members of the team that served them so well in the previous season to rival clubs (for instance, Lallana, Lambert and Lovren all joined Liverpool for huge transfer fees), Southampton were touted by pundits to struggle in 2014 – 2016. On the contrary, The Saints have excelled up to the current date to the extent that they are 5th in the Premier League and, under new manager Ronald Koeman, playing with a new confidence and swagger that is actually an improvement on last season. The Saints won the FA Cup back in 1976 and it is still the last major trophy held in their coffers. Reaching the final in 2003 was an outstanding outcome with an average side so there should be no reason that the current crop of young talent such as goalkeeper Fraser Forster, flying full-back Nathaniel Clyne and Serbian assist-master Dusan Tadic should not have the abilities to match that achievement in the next five to six months.
Turning my attention away from the Premier League teams, I believe that there are a couple of Championship clubs that can forge a road past the major contenders of the top-flight using a combination of form, fortune and fortitude. The first of those clubs is high-flying Derby County who have been handed a very winnable home tie against non-league Southport in the Third Round. Under ex-England manager Steve McLaren, The Rams are favourites to win promotion to the Premier League this season and appear to be fearsome at Pride Park. I mention fortitude in the description because Derby have been earning a reputation for never giving up in the Championship and have been the scorers of many late equalisers and winning goals throughout 2014. They were one of the best teams in the country back in the 70s under the famous Brian Clough so maybe the time has come for Derby to visit Wembley and hit the headlines again.
The second of the Championship clubs who I fancy to give the 2016 FA Cup a good crack is Fulham. I would bet that I am in the minority when picking The Cottagers as a team to challenge for English football’s most lauded trophy and I must admit that a piece of me thinks this is a crazy decision. Given that they were relegated last season and had one of the worse starts to a new division in their history, most commentators would not be expecting Fulham to be on a list of contenders for silverware. However, since ex-player Kit Symons was put in charge of the team they have experienced a fresh start that has given their fans hope for the rest of the season. Added to this new beginning is the fact that their team is littered with skilful talent such as £11m man Ross McCormack, South American striker Hugo Rodallega and ex-England inspirational midfielder Scott Parker. In other words, they have footballers who can win matches in the blink of an eye and sometimes that is the most important trait to have in the FA Cup.
Last, but by no means least, is the longest of long shots in my list. When the Third Round draw was made in Hull’s ‘The Deep’ Aquarium on 8th December 2014, the tie that stood out the most for me was AFC Wimbledon vs Liverpool. One of the most famous cup upsets of all time was when The Dons’ previous incarnation of Wimbledon FC miraculously beat Liverpool 1 – 0 at Wembley in 1988 to stun the world of football. When the club disbanded in 2004 due to a takeover, relocation and name change by a Milton Keynes based consortium, a small group of passionate fans and businessmen had already taken steps, two years earlier, to create AFC Wimbledon in order to keep the true name, heart and soul of the club going. Starting again from scratch in the regional non-leagues, they have managed to reach the heights of League Two over the past twelve years progression and now find themselves at home to Premier League Liverpool in a replay of that famous FA Cup Final almost 27 years ago. Some people say that ‘history doesn’t repeat itself’ but the FA Cup has proven time and time again over the years that anything can happen and, with the right sprinkle of magic, it usually does.