After a weekend that saw another of the Premier League’s big four drop out of the FA Cup, as well as last year’s beaten finalists, the road to Wembley is clear for a number of less glamorous names. Chelsea remain favourites to retain their trophy, but the likes of Birmingham City and Stoke City must be considered dark horses to taste glory in May.
Stoke, who dispatched Arsenal in comfortable fashion yesterday, and Birmingham, whose victory over Everton on Saturday made it 15 games unbeaten this season, have further depleted a field of contenders already reduced by the combined efforts of Reading and Leeds United respectively. Alex McLeish’s Blues and Tony Pulis’ Potters must be considered real contenders to succeed in the world’s oldest cup competition themselves, just reward for two of the game’s most unsung managers. Try as they might, the likes of Birmingham and Stoke are not going to challenge at the very top of the table any time soon. A European place is the summit of their aims for an average season, once the spectre of relegation has been avoided. A cup run is always dreamt of but rarely arrives for either side. Last year, both exited at the third round stage as Birmingham lost 2-0 at home to Midlands rivals Wolves, while Stoke were done for by League One Hartlepool. It was a similar story in the 2007/08 season, when Stoke were hammered in a replay by Newcastle United and Birmingham were shocked by Huddersfield Town, again falling at the first hurdle.
Stoke saw off York City 3-1, while in a clash of the two form teams in the country, Birmingham triumphed over Nottingham Forest after a replay before the weekend’s fine results took them into the fifth round. Stoke’s reward for beating the Gunners is a date with moneybags Manchester City, victors over a determined Scunthorpe United. Birmingham, on the other hand, face Championship Derby County, who eliminated Doncaster Rovers. Neither game will be simple, but both Birmingham and Stoke have proven already this season they can rise to the occasion. Birmingham have drawn with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United as part of their amazing and richly deserved run of results. While Stoke, as well as dismissing Arsenal on Sunday, drew with Liverpool a week ago, beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane and ran Chelsea close before a 94th minute Florent Malouda strike broke their hearts. They both definitely have the quality to beat any opposition on their day, and while neither of them are particularly easy on the eye, their solidity makes them highly difficult to beat – a fine characteristic to posses in a cup competition.
Birmingham’s strength is built on the backs of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, two imposing central defenders who relish an aerial bombardment the likes of which Stoke specialise in. Their team-mates further up the field push the opposition into playing into their hands with constant pressure all over the pitch, forcing the beleaguered players into hurried clearances which Dann and Johnson take care of with minimal fuss. When they are in possession, McLeish’s side rely on the tidy probing of Barry Ferguson and the darting runs of a revitalised Lee Bowyer to compliment forwards Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome. With Jerome missing against Everton, James McFadden was moved alongside Benitez and displayed an iron will lacking during his time at Goodison Park. It manifested itself as volleys of abuse directed at the officials and a penchant for sly fouls when challenging for headers. Although they are capable of attractive football, Birmingham’s primary game plan is to pummel their opponents into submission before striking with a lightning counter-attack led by the tireless Benitez.
Stoke, meanwhile, are the most divisive team in the Premier League. Proponents of their style argue Pulis makes the most of the players available to him and that it is the result that matters. Critics lambast Pulis’ route one philosophy as bad for the game regardless of what Stoke achieve that way. It is certainly effective, however, as the combative, up-and-under approach and Rory Delap’s bomb-like throw-ins have claimed many victims during Pulis’ reign at the Britannia Stadium. Stoke’s players are not without talent, however, and it is not luck they owe their success to. With Tuncay, Ricardo Fuller and Matthew Etherington to call on, there is enough genuine football ability in Stoke’s ranks to justify their Premier League position. For better or worse, Stoke’s methods are legitimate and as much a part of football as Arsenal’s intricate passing, and Pulis’ men are the masters when it comes to that particular art. Tottenham, should they get past Leeds, Aston Villa and Stoke’s opponents Manchester City, may seem like more obvious names to suggest as Chelsea’s biggest threats, but the same three are also fighting it out for the final Champions League place, leaving the FA Cup a distant second in the order of their priorities.
While McLeish and Pulis will not allow their players to forget their Premier League duties, once relegation is mathematically impossible focus can comfortably shift to booking a place at Wembley in four months time. Birmingham, currently eight points above Stoke, will reach that point sooner and are also faced with what should be an easier passage to the quarter-finals. There are no guarantees in football of course, and especially not the FA Cup, but such is the consistency shown by McLeish’s team a couple of trips down Wembley way are not out of the question. Few would be shocked if come May 15Delap is preparing to hurl a trademark throw into the penalty area. It would be fitting tribute to two diligent and dedicated managers who deserve their day in the spotlight.