ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's FA Cup action. Watch ESPN’s live and exclusive coverage of three FA Cup matches this weekend.
It's the last 16 of the FA Cup this weekend, and it's a very well-balanced draw. Each of the ties includes a Premier League club, yet there's only one all-Premier tie: Sunderland-Arsenal.
FIXTURES (click team name for web-wide club news feed): Sat 18 Feb 12.30pm Chelsea v Birmingham City (Live on ESPN) 3pm Everton v Blackpool; Norwich City v Leicester City; Millwall v Bolton Wanderers 5.15pm Sunderland v Arsenal Sun 19 Feb 12noon Crawley Town v Stoke City (Live on ESPN) 2pm Stevenage v Tottenham Hotspur 4.30pm Liverpool v Brighton & Hove Albion (Live on ESPN)For me, the two ties that stand out are Crawley-Stoke and Stevenage-Tottenham. Two years ago, they would have been non-league against Premier League.
Stevenage have history in the Cup: as recently as last year they knocked out Newcastle on a memorable day at Broadhall Way. Since then they've lost their manager Graham Westley who built the team, and they have Gary Smith in charge, but they're still very much playing the same way. Tottenham could be a tougher nut to crack than Newcastle and but it's an intriguing cup tie that will really test the visiting players because Broadhall Way will be packed. The London side are lucky in that they have such strength in depth that they could field a second XI that would still be a match for most Premiership teams, and ultimately I would fancy them to go through. But it really is a fascinating occasion.
From Broadhall Way to Broadfield Stadium, and Crawley-Stoke is another fascinating tie. Having been there last year when they knocked Derby out, I think Crawley are good enough to give Stoke a run for their money – especially as Stoke are on such a bad run. Crawley boss Steve Evans is a wily old manager and he’s a man that can build a team. Last year, he told me he thought they were a League One side playing in the Conference. Now they're a point off the top of League Two and I think they're good enough to play in the lower half of the Championship. Crawley have a puncher's chance because Stoke had been on a downward curve in the last two months. It's a blessing in disguise that they've been drawn against Valencia in the Europa League; we've seen how their European adventure has impacted their league form.Ultimately Stoke's first aim will always be to stay in the Premier League – so they can almost go out valiantly against Valencia, one of the bigger names in Europe, and say “Look, we’ve had a good season in Europe. Now let’s go out and focus on the Premier League.” Having had a taste of Wembley last season, I think for them, the FA Cup now is a priority, but it isn’t for Tottenham.
It seems as though every game is vital for Chelsea's Andre Villas-Boas right now, and Birmingham at home comes into that category. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion by any means: Birmingham beat Chelsea in the league last season and are on a good run – unbeaten in 13 games, they haven’t lost in 2012, and they’ve only conceded 27 goals in 30 Championship matches this season. Chelsea will struggle to break them down. Fernando Torres isn’t scoring, Daniel Sturridge seems unhappy. Rumour has it that only Jose Bosingwa, David Luiz and Ramires are truly behind the manager and the rest wouldn’t be bothered if there was a managerial change. Birmingham have what it takes to go there and frustrate them so I think it could be another awkward lunchtime for Villas-Boas.
Arsenal go to Sunderland for the second time in a week, this time without Thierry Henry and most of their central defenders, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny both picking up injuries during the last two games. For those reasons, I fancy Sunderland to get their revenge after that late Premier League defeat last weekend. Arsenal are heading in the wrong direction. They're going to struggle to hold on to a top-four place and Sunderland are very mobile under Martin O’Neill. Young James McClean has been an outstanding find and they have Fraizer Campbell back now as well. I fancy them to beat Arsenal – and to be a side nobody will want to play in the last eight.
Liverpool's tie against Brighton is one for the purists, but again anything but a foregone conclusion. Liverpool have drawn so many at home and Brighton, though perhaps lucky to edge past Newcastle in the last round, are a very good team. I’ve seen them a few times now and they play in a very attractive way under Gus Poyet. They’ve taken Sam Vokes on loan from Wolves and he’s looking very much the part. They won at Anfield in the Fifth Round in 1983, they'll take 6,000 fans there and I just think they’re good enough to really take a few punches at Liverpool.
The most attractive tie of the round could be Everton against Blackpool. Blackpool's replay win in the last round at Sheffield Wednesday was tremendous. They played a mixture of first teams and reserves but they played like Barcelona! Matt Phillips, Kevin Phillips, Lomana LuaLua and Thomas Ince played as an astonishing ‘fab four’. They'll see this as a way of playing their way back onto the Premier League stage and though Everton have made some good signings in the January transfer window, rather like Brighton and Liverpool the day before, I think the Merseyside club will have a lot to do to knock out Championship opposition.
Bolton will probably just want out of the cup now to focus on their Premier League survival campaign. They tend to have a couple of good results, then three or four really bad ones. And that win against Liverpool, which looked like a turning point, now seems to be a long time ago. Millwall are an unheralded side. They have a player in Liam Trotter who I really like and he really holds their midfield together. I fancy Millwall to get the result against Bolton. I can’t imagine Owen Coyle is going to play the full first team and we may well see Millwall’s name in the last eight because of that.
Finally, Leicester visit Norwich – but which Norwich? If it's the one that hosted MK Dons in the League Cup and lost 4-1, Leicester will win. If it’s the Premier League Norwich then you have to fancy the home side will have too much for the visitors. Leicester players like David Nugent, Kasper Schmeichel and Matt Mills would all sit quite comfortably in the Premier League, so if Norwich have a bad day Leicester will go through but otherwise I think you’d have to fancy the Canaries as firm favourites.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster of the FA Cup. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage from three FA Cup Fifth Round matches: Chelsea v Birmingham City (Saturday from 11.30am), Crawley Town v Stoke City (Sunday from 11.30am) and Liverpool v Brighton & Hove Albion (Sunday from 3.45pm).
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