Blessing in disguise for United

Glenn Moore assesses what happens next for those in and out of the FA Cup
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The Independent Online
"Put your money on Coventry to go down," said Laurence Batty, the Woking goalkeeper, after the non-League club's narrow FA Cup defeat by the Premiership side on Tuesday.

Maybe, but anyone who does have a few quid to spare may be better advised to put it on Manchester United for the championship. Their Tuesday night defeat by Wimbledon narrows their focus to the Premiership and the European Champions' Cup. The latter does not resume until March and, even if United reached the final, they would only have to fit in four matches before the end of the domestic campaign.

True, the FA Cup culling of the favourites means that Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle are similarly undistracted, with Arsenal no longer in Europe. But Manchester United remain both the best balanced and the most experienced of the contenders for the Premiership.

Even if they do not win either title or European Cup, they are likely to be back in the Champions' League next year. The expansion of Uefa's lucrative flagship competition means the Premiership's top two teams will qualify.

Who represents England in the European Cup-Winners' Cup is more open. For the first time since 1975, when West Ham beat Fulham, none of the traditional big five - Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham - will be in the FA Cup final.

Between them, those five have won 14 of the last 16 finals; 1987 when Coventry beat Spurs and 1988 when Wimbledon defeated Liverpool being the exceptions.

Those winners are two of just six surviving clubs to have won the FA Cup in the last 50 years. The prospect of a pre-match build-up replete with old newsreel footage of cloth-capped figures celebrating the last win by Sheffield Wednesday (1935), Portsmouth (1939) or Blackburn (1928) grows.

Of the bookmakers' three favourites to claim the trophy, Chelsea could easily lose at Leicester on Sunday week, Wimbledon may run out of energy and Leeds look short of ingenuity. Perhaps Wednesday or Blackburn, both showing form at the right time, could figure, or will the wily Jim Smith guide Derby County to Wembley?

Fans of the latter two, Coventry, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough will be torn between the morale boost of a Cup run and the need to concentrate on Premiership survival. Crystal Palace and Oldham, both relegated semi- finalists in the last three years, will testify to the dangers.

For the seven clubs already outside the top flight, the aim is to emulate Sunderland, the last such finalist in 1992, and West Ham, the last such winner in 1980. A clutch of putative successors prowl the draw this year with Queen's Park Rangers - although they face a difficult tie with Wimbledon - and Manchester City, due to play Watford last night, best equipped for the task.

Rangers are one of six clubs definitely in the last 16 who are yet to win the Cup. The Coca-Cola Cup will already have a new name on it this year - what price an unusual double?

THE SURVIVORS

CLUB LAST WIN LAST FINAL

Birmingham - 1956

*Blackburn 1928 1960

Bradford City 1911 1911

Chelsea 1970 1994

*Coventry 1987 1987

Derby 1946 1946

Leeds 1972 1973

Leicester - 1969

*Man City 1969 1981

Nottm Forest 1959 1991

Portsmouth 1939 1939

QPR - 1982

Sheffield Wed 1935 1993

*Watford - 1984

Wimbledon 1988 1988

NEVER REACHED FINAL

(Best performance before this season)

Chesterfield 5th rd (1950)

Middlesbrough 6th rd (1981)

Wrexham 6th rd (1978)

* Still at fourth-round stage

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