There is usually a long shot or two in the semifinals of the F.A. Cup. Last year had Crystal Palace and Watford. The year before, Reading. The year before that, Sheffield United and Wigan.
The colorful minnows who survive the early rounds give the tournament its (well-marketed) charm, but this year there arenât any. The final four teams that will participate in this weekendâs semifinals â Chelsea versus Tottenham, and Manchester City against Arsenal â are wealthy powerhouses who regularly occupy places near the top of the Premier League.
It did not start out that way. Two teams that play in the fifth tier of English soccer made the last 16 for the first time, and one of them, Lincoln City, became the first to reach the quarterfinals. But Lincoln and Millwall, the other minnow in the quarterfinals, quietly departed the competition at that stage last month, leaving only soccer royalty to chase the trophy.
On Saturday, the top two teams in the Premier League table, Chelsea and Spurs, face off in the first semifinal at Wembley. Chelsea, after a shockingly uncharacteristic 10th-place finish last season, has rebounded under its new manager, Antonio Conte. A few weeks ago, the Blues were being penciled in as sure league winners. But recent hiccups, including losses against Crystal Palace and Manchester United, combined with Spursâ fine form â seven league wins in a row â have made the title race, well, a race again. Tottenham trails Chelsea by only 4 points with six games to play.
Surely both teams would prefer to win the Premier League, but the F.A. Cup is a big prize in its own right, and the winner of Saturdayâs match might also gain a psychological advantage for the last weeks of the season. Tottenhamâs manager, Mauricio Pochettino, labeled Chelsea the favorite this week, but, he added, âWeâre in a good moment too, a hungry team.â
Conte, the Chelsea manager, rejected the label, telling reporters on Friday that clinging to the underdog label as it challenged for the title was an âexcuse.â
âThere is a moment to finish considering yourself an underdog,â he said. âThis is the right moment.â
On Sunday, Manchester City, in third place, will meet Arsenal, which is having a run of bad form, including a 3-0 loss to Palace and a 3-1 loss to West Brom, that is likely to end its 20-year streak of top-four finishes in the league.
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