And then there were four. 736 teams entered the FA Cup this year, 124 of which participated in the first round proper back in November.
Five months and over 350 goals later, we’ve reached Wembley, were the final quartet dream of clinching football’s oldest competition.
We have one usual suspect, two strong top-half Premier League sides and another top-flight team caught dividing their attention between cup glory and avoiding the drop.
Let’s preview this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals.
Manchester City v Brighton (Saturday, 5.30pm)
Pep Guardiola has told his players to ‘forget’ about the quadruple but the Catalan would be lying if he told us that the thought of leading Manchester City to four trophies in the same season hadn’t crossed his mind.
ANY City player to score a hat-trick (90 mins) WAS 5.50, NOW 7.00*
Of course, even for a side of City’s supremacy, it will be tough to go all the way on all four fronts. The Carabao Cup is already in the cabinet but the Premier League title race looks destined to go down to the wire while there is undoubtedly intense pressure on Guardiola to guide City into the Champions League semi-final (a stage they have reached only once before).
And there are no guarantees in the FA Cup. City required a borderline laughable degree of good fortune to see off Swansea City in the last round, a game which will give hope to Brighton.
It’s difficult, however, to look beyond City’s pedigree when it comes to FA Cup semi-finals. They have won 10 of their 13, including eight of the last nine. Given their prominence at the top of the English game over the last decade it’s surprising that they are chasing their first triumph in this competition since 2011.
But they have been irresistible throughout this campaign, with nine different players scoring a total of 19 goals. They made exceptionally light work of Rotherham, Burnley and Newport County and, while Swansea gave them a scare at the Liberty Stadium, it’s tough to see Guardiola’s side ending up on the losing side here.
Sterling to score & City to win 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1 WAS 5.75, NOW 6.50*
Then again, Brighton are made of stern stuff. They overcame tough ties against Bournemouth, West Brom, Derby and Millwall to reach this stage and Chris Hughton will pore over every last detail to ensure he leads the Seagulls into their first FA Cup final since 1983 (a campaign which saw them defeat City).
City are brimming with star quality but keep an eye on Jurgen Locadia. The Dutchman has notched three goals and two assists in his last seven cup outings and, having been rested for the midweek trip to Chelsea, will relish the chance to stun City.
Manchester City v Brighton Preview, Betting Tips And Enhanced Odds – FA Cup Semi-Final
Watford v Wolves (Sunday, 4pm)
Whatever happens at Wembley, Watford and Wolves can draw great encouragement from this season.
When Javi Gracia was appointed Hornets boss in January 2018, he was faced with a club in freefall. Marco Silva, whose flirtations with Everton ultimately cost him his job at Vicarage Road, oversaw a torrid run that included just one league win in 11.
Under the self-effacing Spaniard, though, they have established themselves as one of the best teams outside the top six. Indeed, Tuesday night’s 4-1 defeat of Fulham – which condemned the Cottagers to relegation – saw Watford surpasses their greatest Premier League points tally with six games to spare.
Jimenez to score & Wolves to win (90 mins) WAS 3.50, NOW 4.00*
Delivering the club’s first FA Cup would cap an immensely satisfying year for Gracia and his players.
Flavour of the month Wolves may have something to say about that. Nuno Espirito Santo’s men have toppled Liverpool and Manchester United en route to this semi-final and, having just beaten United again, have clearly pieced together an effective big-game formula.
Watford got the better of them in November’s league clash, running out 2-0 winners at Molineux, but the Black Country side have developed a knack for delivering when it matters.
Raul Jimenez could be the man to fire them into the final. The Mexican, who was this week confirmed as a Wolves player on a permanent basis following a successful loan spell from Benfica, scored vital cup goals against Liverpool, Shrewsbury Town and Manchester United.
Having forged such a potent partnership with Diogo Jota up top, Jimenez can etch his name into Wolves folklore by helping them reach their first FA Cup final since 1960.
Watford to win & BTTS WAS 6.00, NOW 6.50*
Troy Deeney, however, has been a talismanic figure for Watford in this competition. The straight-talking striker has scored or assisted nine goals in his last 13 FA cup appearances.
Gracia and Santo, two managers who have surpassed expectations and brought their respective sides to new heights, are two likeable protagonists at the centre of this story – and Sunday provides a tantalising opportunity bolster their burgeoning reputations in this country.
Watford v Wolves Preview, Betting Tips And Enhanced Odds – FA Cup Semi-Final
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