Bolton vs Stoke – The stakes are highest in the underdogs’ semi final

This weekend, the focus of the football world will understandably be on the first of Wembley’s two FA Cup semi finals, pitting the two Mancunian giants against each other. Whichever of the two rivals emerges victorious will establish themselves as firm favourites to lift the cup. However, the stakes are arguably higher in the other semi final, Sunday’s encounter between underdogs Bolton and Stoke.

That is partly because both of these famous old clubs, founder members of the football league, are trophy-starved (Stoke last won a major trophy some 39 years ago, while Bolton have been waiting even longer, their last major honour coming in 1958). Primarily however, it is because the winner is all but guaranteed European football next season, irrespective of whether or not they actually win the cup, given the likelihood of both Manchester teams qualifying for the Champions League. Although Bolton have enjoyed the odd brief foray in the UEFA Cup in recent years, Stoke’s only dalliances on the continent since their 1970s heyday have come in the now defunct and little-missed Anglo-Italian Cup.

The Europa League is sometimes viewed by managers as something of an irritant; an inconvenience which shovels a seemingly endless run of games into an already crammed fixture list. However, a European campaign could raise the profile of two of the Premier League’s lesser lights. Not only could the lure of European football make the club a more attractive proposition that both sides covet in their aim to reach the much-vaunted ‘next level’, but the statement of intent that a cup final appearance and Europa League qualification provide could prove instrumental in persuading star players linked to bigger clubs – Gary Cahill or Ryan Shawcross for example – to stick around.

There is no shortage of ambition at either side. Owen Coyle has transformed the Trotters from a team seemingly on a downward spiral back into an upwardly mobile outfit looking to cement its status in the upper echelons of the Premier League. He has developed their style as well, marrying the robustness and direct play synonymous with their success under Sam Allardyce with some more cultured, attractive football, incorporating the talents of players such as Mark Davies, Chung-Yong Lee and free transfer sensation Stuart Holden.

Stoke, meanwhile, have proven their detractors wrong at every turn, surviving comfortably in their maiden Premier League season against the odds and forging a reputation as a tough to beat mid-table top flight team. Derided in the media for their physicality and long ball approach, Tony Pulis’ side have shown signs of following the Bolton blueprint and adding more strings to their bow, with flying wingers Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant stretching even the most illustrious of visitors to the Britannia Stadium, and the rise to prominence of the likes of Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson, adding some brains to their midfield brawn.

Is winning the cup itself out of the question for Stoke and Bolton? Surely not – each side has shown themselves capable of beating anyone on their day, and with Manchester United competing on three fronts and Manchester City’s defeats this season to the likes of Wolves and Sunderland underlining their vulnerability, anything is possible. Birmingham’s Carling Cup win has already given hope to smaller teams in search of silverware; what price a surprise FA Cup winner come 14th May?

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