26th April 2016.
To say that it's been an odd year in the FA Cup would be an understatement. Last year, after heavyweight clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur were all eliminated in the round of 32, pundits labeled the tournament as one of the most wide-open in FA Cup history. Still, despite all of the ado about underdogs and upsets, Arsenal still defended their 2013/14 title to clinch the FA Cup trophy for the 12th time.
The 2015/16 FA Cup has taken almost the direct opposite narrative. Early rounds made it look as if the Premier League's top clubs would dominate the tournament. Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal all made it to the quarterfinals, with none of them pitted against one another. It was almost an unspoken agreement that all three clubs would make it to the semi-finals. As it turned out, only one of them did.
Indeed, where last year's round of 32 brought most of the upsets and surprises, this year's shocking twists all played out in the quarterfinals. First, Everton beat Chelsea 2-0 to end the Blues' best shot at silverware for the season-a major upset, after Chelsea had beaten Manchester City 5-0 in the round of 16. Then, Watford, a club just promoted to the Premier League this season (and one that lost to Chelsea in the third round a year ago) beat Arsenal 2-1. The defeat denies the Gunners a chance to win the FA Cup for the third year in a row-something that only two other clubs (Wanderers FC and Blackburn Rovers) have ever done.
Crystal Palace also made it through to the semis (beating Reading 2-0 in the quarterfinals), as did Manchester United (topping West Ham United 2-1 to clinch their spot). However, the quarters sent a clear message: in the FA Cup, where one match can make or break your tournament chances, there is no such thing as a sure thing.
The quarterfinal excitement set up a pair of crucial semi-final games at Wembley over the weekend: Everton versus Manchester United on Saturday and Crystal Palace versus Watford on Sunday.
Everton vs. Manchester United
It would be difficult for anyone to look at Manchester United's 2015/16 season and call it unequivocally great, or even particularly good. The Red Devils have had moments of brilliance here and there, but they've also often looked muddled and directionless. Suffice to say that all of the fans calling for Louis van Gaal's resignation or sacking have a reason or two to want the Dutch manager gone.
Still, Manchester United were the "biggest" soccer club left standing in the FA Cup quarterfinals, and they held strong enough to secure themselves a spot in the finals. The game that got them a chance at 2015/16 silverware was still a bit muddled and sloppy-United beat Everton 2-1, with the opposing team's only point the result of an own goal. Still, thanks to a late goal from Anthony Martial, the Red Devils avoided tripping over themselves further and giving the People's Club a chance to get back in the game.
United's victory showed some of the clear weaknesses that have affected the football club all season. The Red Devils were clearly the stronger team on the field during the first half, but only managed to convert one of their chances-a 34-minute goal from Fellaini, with an assist from Martial-into a point.
Everton looked a lot stronger in the second half, battling back to share possession almost equally with United for the total match time. To United's credit, they managed to keep Everton's key man, Romelu Lukaku from scoring. David De Gea even blocked a penalty kick from Lukaku at the 57-minute mark, a crucial save that kept the Red Devils up by a point even as they struggled to stay in control of the match. De Gea wasn't quite so fortunate at the 75-minute mark when a shot ricocheted off Chris Smalling and into the goal.
The own goal could very well have put an end to Louis van Gaal's tenure at Manchester United. With three games remaining in the 2015/16 Premier League campaign, Van Gaal's side cannot hope to win the title and will have to get lucky to qualify for the Champions League. The Red Devils also bowed out of the Europa League in the round of 16, losing to Liverpool. The FA Cup is the soccer club's only chance at a trophy.
Since the tides seemed to be turning against United in the second half of the Everton game, it seems highly likely that Everton could have staged a comeback and won the match in extra time. A loss-and an own goal, no less-would have been another disappointment in a disappointing Manchester United season, and enough to serve as the final nail in Louis van Gaal's coffin.
Luckily for the Dutch manager-and for all Man Utd fans still holding out for some good news-Anthony Martial came to the rescue. Martial scored in stoppage time-90+3 minutes, to be exact-a last-minute reprieve to send the Red Devils to their first FA Cup final since 2007.
United have 11 titles in this tournament, which means that if they win the championship match, they will tie Arsenal for the record. The Red Devils haven't won the FA Cup since 2004 when they beat Millwall 3-0 to clinch number 11. They subsequently lost the tournament to Arsenal in 2005 and fell against Chelsea in the 2006/07 final.
Crystal Palace vs. Watford
The other weekend FA Cup match-between Crystal Palace and Watford-was probably lower-profile due to the teams playing. Watford are currently ranked 12th out of 20 teams in the 2015/16 Premier League while Crystal Palace are 16th. Still, the game was an intriguing one, if only thanks to Watford's big quarterfinal upset. Would the recently promoted soccer squad be able to translate the momentum from beating Arsenal into an FA Cup-winning run?
Ultimately, the answer to that question as "no." Watford beat Arsenal by taking a 2-0 lead early in the second half, but the win looks to have been a fluke now. The Hornets have only won one other match since their March 13th triumph over the Gunners (they beat West Bromwich Albion) and have lost big in most of their games. Watford even lost 4-0 in a Premier League rematch with Arsenal on April 2nd.
In other words, while Watford scored one of the biggest upsets of the 2015/16 FA Cup just one round ago, their momentum has taken some serious hits since. So when Crystal Palace took an early lead on Sunday-midfielder Yannick Bolasie scored just six minutes into the game-the Hornets fell into catch-up mode. As their past few matches have proven, catch-up mode is not Watford's best setting.
To their credit, Watford did end up equalizing the score-though it took them 50 minutes to do so. Early in the second half, attacker Troy Deeney finally found the back of the net to get the Hornets back in the game. It took less than 10 minutes for Crystal Palace to get back in the lead, though, and once that happened, Watford's chances took a major hit. Crystal Palace ultimately won the game 2-1.
The final for the 2015/16 FA Cup is scheduled for May 20th at Wembley Stadium. It will be the second time that Crystal Palace will compete in an FA Cup final, and the first time since 1990. Incidentally, Crystal Palace's previous bid for an FA Cup trophy also pitted the Eagles against Manchester United.
The last time the Red Devils and the Eagles met for this particular match, the FA Cup was still doing replay games for the final instead of penalty shootouts. Crystal Palace forced a replay match back in 1990, after the first game resulted in a 3-3 stalemate after 120 minutes of play. United won the second game by a margin of 1-0, clinching their seventh FA Cup title in the process.
The Eagles don't look like the best bet to win the rematch. Manchester United have been inconsistent this season, but with Wayne Rooney back and Anthony Martial settling into a reliable groove, the Red Devils look poised to win a 12th FA Cup title. And of course, it doesn't hurt United's odds that they just beat Crystal Palace 2-0 last week.
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2015/16 FA Cup Semi-Final Analysis and Final Predictions
26th April 2016.