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 aren’t any. The final four teams that will participate in this weekend’s semifinals — Chelsea versus Tottenham, and Manchester City against Arsenal — 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 Spurs’ fine form — seven league wins in a row — 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 Saturday’s match might also gain a psychological advantage for the last weeks of the season. Tottenham’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, labeled Chelsea the favorite this week, but, he added, “We’re in a good moment too, a hungry team.”
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 “excuse.”
“There is a moment to finish considering yourself an underdog,” he said. “This is the right moment.”
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.
Arsenal has qualified for the Champions League every season for two decades, but is in grave danger of missing out next year, sitting only in sixth place. Many fans have given up on the team’s longtime manager, Arsène Wenger, and are calling for wholesale changes. But Wenger, 67, has given no indication that he plans to leave the club.
Although it trails Chelsea and Spurs in the league, City is the betting favorite to win the Cup, both because of its intrinsic talent — its star-filled roster cost $562 million to assemble, according to the player evaluation site Transfer Markt, the highest figure in the world’s richest league — and because of its perceived easier semifinal opponent.
Three of these teams have won the Cup in recent years. The exception is Spurs. Though the team has eight Cup titles in its history, trailing only Arsenal and Manchester United, it has not won the competition since 1991. In fact, it has only one major trophy in the current century, the 2008 League Cup. This year, Spurs fans may be smelling more.
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