The 135th edition of arguably the most prestigious domestic cup competition in world football is already in full swing, with the qualifying rounds set to determine which non-leagues teams will have the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream and play in the FA Cup first round. Some could even make it to the promise land of the third round where they are put into the same bag as Premier League and Championship teams, with with West Brom v Gateshead, Blyth Spartans v Birmingham and Derby v Southport prime examples from last season of ties that epitomise the beauty of the FA Cup and the giant-killings that could make all the headlines. However, it is a competition that is taken very seriously by the big teams in England, particularly as the winners now receive automatic qualification to the Europa League which is a nice incentive for more clubs to give it their best shot.
It may come as a surprise to those who have followed the Premier League this season, but Coral currently have Chelsea as favourites to win this season’s FA Cup at 5/1. Jose Mourinho’s side are currently a shadow of the team that dominated the league and won the title at a canter, with all the qualities that made them an unstoppable force evidently missing from their game. Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic have regressed into players that lack any sort of confidence or form, while Chelsea’s usually watertight defence has been vulnerable and lacking protection from the players in front of them. However, Chelsea may have hit top gear by time they enter the competition at the third round stage in January, and it will be interesting to see how they fair in the next FA Cup match. It is a competition that Mourinho will undoubtedly target as one that he would love to win, particularly with redemption on his mind following their exit at the hands of League One side Bradford City at Stamford Bridge last season in a result that sent shockwaves across the entire country.
Like Mourinho, two other managers who find themselves under pressure to deliver silverware are amongst the front runners to lift the FA Cup next May. Both Manchester clubs are expected to fare much better than they did last night; while City never mounted a serious defence of their Premier League crown, Manchester United took an eternity to find their stride under Louis Van Gaal and endured another trophy-less campaign. They are 6/1 and 7/1 respectively to win at least one major trophy in 2015/2016, and both have enough quality at their disposal to be serious contenders.
Being joint-third favourites at 7/1 may represent excellent value for those who choose to back Arsenal to make FA Cup history, but Arsene Wenger’s on-going reluctance to strengthen his squad and bring in top quality players may ultimately prove to be their downfall. The Gunners are going to have to enjoy an injury and suspension-free season in order to keep their strongest first-choice line-up, but if they are drawn against mostly Championship teams along the way then it will undoubtedly aid their chances. However, Arsenal have lifted the famous trophy in consecutive years for a reason – they not only play the most attractive football in the country when plan A works, but also have the quality to blow teams away as Manchester United found out in their recent Premier League clash at the Emirates.
The FA Cup is all about fairytale stories and giant-killings as a symbolic representation of what true football is all about, and although the non-league teams are unlikely to go all the way, it certainly does not mean that lower league teams are out of the equation either. Bradford and Reading proved last season that you do not necessarily have to be a top flight club to reach the Quarter or Semi-Finals, with the latter only undone against Arsenal by an unfortunate goal-keeping error in extra time in a game they could have won. 2015/2016 may be the year that teams like Swansea and West Ham (both 33/1) make a name for themselves in the FA Cup, while Crystal Palace (50/1) have made another impressive start to the season under Alan Pardew and could be considered amongst the dark horses.