Sunday 17 Feb 2:00 pm (Etihad Stadium, Manchester)
FA Cup 5th Round weekend is where a new ingredient starts to enter the much-vaunted “Romance of the Cup”. After the battles, scrapes and scares at previous stages of this most famous knockout competition, there is at last a genuine whiff of Wembley in the air.
This is much more the case these days of course, than in olden, golden times. Now, the need to accommodate sizeable contingents from all four semi-finalists dictates that the traditional last stop before Wembley is, erm, Wembley. So the 5th Round winners will be potentially a mere 90 minutes from a coveted appearance at the legendary venue. In other words, the competition is hurtling towards crunch time; all the teams that have survived so far can permit themselves a very private dream of ultimate glory, or at least of the chance to perish at the final hurdle in auspicious surroundings.
Still, even at this relatively advanced stage of the competition, there remain giants to be killed, and also minnows, of all sizes, desperate to do the slaying. It was as “minnows” that my beloved Leeds United faced up to their last Cup trip to the North-West, thanks to some ill-advised pre-publicity on Manchester United’s mischievous official website. On that occasion, the underdogs proved that their bite lived up to their bark, and left the then Champions chastened and potless. Now Leeds must return, this time to Manchester City, again as underdogs, again pitted against the Title holders in their own backyard. Can United repeat their unlikely triumph of three years ago, this time against the Blue Mancunian majority? On the face of it, little could be less likely.
Leeds United are after all a club in turmoil, their season so far defined by bitterly disappointing under-achievement. After the long, drawn-out agony of the summer’s takeover saga, which actually dragged into the last couple of shopping days before Christmas, it’s perhaps understandable. But the league programme has been such a damp squib, the football has been so dire, and Neil Warnock, the supposed saviour of twelve months ago, has failed to live up to his promotion-speckled CV. Significantly though, the few bright spots have come in Cup competitions, where progress on two fronts has been embellished by the disposal of three nominal superiors from the Premier League. The most recent and by far the most impressive of these was the defeat of a Bale-powered Tottenham at Elland Road in the last round of the FA Cup. A second-half League Cup capitulation against Chelsea aside, Leeds’ knockout form this season has been rather good.
Manchester City meanwhile, reigning Champions and domestic Galácticos though they may be, look to have stumbled fatally in recent weeks. A run of pallid draws and then an awful capitulation at Southampton last week, and suddenly the gap between them and the Premier League summit is a chilling 12 point chasm. So, City head into the tie against Leeds in rather less than ideal shape. They will not have forgotten that their lowly opponents triumphed at Old Trafford a few short years back; neither will it have escaped them that they suffered a 2-5 reverse, last time these two met in the Cup on City’s patch. But these unwelcome omens may well put The Blues on their mettle, and the fact that their abject last performance so angered manager Roberto Mancini promises to be bad news for Leeds. Whatever the personnel in the Champions’ line-up on Sunday, they should not lack for motivation.
Leeds will expect to be under the cosh, but they have successfully bounced back from limp league performances on several occasions this season already. There has been an air of nonchalant relaxation in their Cup outings; no pressure to gain points towards a play-off berth, no real expectation of anything better than a battling performance and a glorious exit. Against this background, they have compassed the demise of Southampton, Everton and Spurs without ever being seriously troubled, and it will have crossed their minds that a deflated City might just be there for the taking.
There are, then, a number of imponderables that conspire to make this seemingly predictable tie that bit less clear-cut. Leeds will be up for it, and City may find the muck and bullets nature of the midfield battle is not quite to their more refined tastes. But if the Champions can impose their undoubted class early on, Leeds United will face a long and dispiriting afternoon. If, however, City struggle to break down a stubborn Whites defence, then the pressure of their own fans’ frustrations could sap them as the game progresses. In McCormack and Diouf, the Yorkshire giants possess sly and experienced campaigners who are liable to sniff blood and nip in for the kill.
My impartial, unbiased prediction? Well, both these sides owe their supporters after recent hapless performances, so I’ll call the motivation stakes even. My heart goes for a 2-2 draw, and a probably fruitless Elland Road replay. My head says City, possibly by three – and I’ll be happy with that, as long as the lads have put up a fight for the fans and the shirts.
Twist my arm then and I’ll predict, through gritted teeth: Manchester City 4, Leeds United 1