Cup's faded magic still offers rich rewards

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The Independent Online

The FA Cup may no longer retain the same hold on the nation's sporting consciousness as it did in the days of baggy shorts and sepia prints but the competition remains the prime hope of silverware for all but one of this weekend's 16 survivors. While the Worthington Cup finalists Liverpool, like their relegation-threatened opponents Manchester City, can regard tomorrow's fifth-round tie as a pleasant diversion, the stakes are higher for the remaining seven Premiership teams.

The FA Cup may no longer retain the same hold on the nation's sporting consciousness as it did in the days of baggy shorts and sepia prints but the competition remains the prime hope of silverware for all but one of this weekend's 16 survivors. While the Worthington Cup finalists Liverpool, like their relegation-threatened opponents Manchester City, can regard tomorrow's fifth-round tie as a pleasant diversion, the stakes are higher for the remaining seven Premiership teams.

Arsenal may reasonably hope to qualify for next season's Champions' League, and might yet dream of winning the current competition, but they remain very aware that the FA Cup offers both prestige and a Uefa Cup place. Likewise Sunderland who, while aiming for a Champions' League spot, will be just as intent on reaching the Millennium Stadium in May as Chelsea, Leicester, Southampton, Tottenham and West Ham.

With Manchester United out, and Arsenal paired with Chelsea, all will feel they have a chance. So, too, the winner of the Bolton-Blackburn tie. Though promotion to the Premiership remains the priority for both, either would regard themselves as a genuine contender to be the first winners from outside the top flight since West Ham in 1980.

That tie at the Reebok, and today's encounter between Wycombe and Wolves, means at least two of the final eight will be from outside the Premiership and it would be no surprise if a third should sneak in. After adding Everton, at Goodison, to their list of recent Premiership scalps in the last round Tranmere will not fear the trip to The Dell. Stockport, in the fifth round for the first time in 51 years, will have fewer backers at White Hart Lane but they, like Bristol City at Leicester, will be able to play in that relaxed frame of mind which is often conducive to upsets.

The action starts at noon today when West Ham enjoy their 'reward' for knocking out the champions and favourites, a trip to fourth-placed Sunderland. The Hammers have won only twice in 20 visits to the North-East since 1990, although they travelled to Old Trafford on the back of eight Premiership visits without a point.

Three key Sunderland players are suspended. No surprise, then, that Peter Reid yesterday called for referees to be more accountable. "If I'm not doing my job, I get the sack. If the players aren't doing their jobs, they get left out. I don't know what happens to referees." Today's official will doubtless take note.

West Ham will be back on the A1 by the time the next five ties kick-off with the focus moving to White Hart Lane. The courtroom revelations of Alan Sugar's libel case have overshadowed Tottenham's improving form, intensifying the pressure on George Graham, who will hope for goals from the men he did sign, such as Willem Korsten and Steffen Freund, to deflect attention from the ones he did not, like Kieron Dyer and Robbie Keane.

Spurs have not lost in the FA Cup to a lower division side at home since 1975 but are, as usual, missing a raft of first-teamers through injury. With Stockport suffering from a flu bug it could be down to who's fittest. Yesterday Graham attempted to rally his walking wounded by reminding his team of the prize. "To hold an FA Cup winner's medal in your hands is fantastic," said Graham, a winner as player and manager. "My best memory as a player is coming from a goal down to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the 1971 final."

Graham also warned against complacency as did Glenn Hoddle, who will again be mentioned in connection with Graham's job should Tottenham fall and he steer Southampton into the sixth round for the first time in nine years. Their tie is likely to feature the highest number of patriotically-motivated players with three Welshmen on view: Southampton's Paul Jones and Jason Koumas and Gareth Roberts of Tranmere.

Equally eager to reach the first FA Cup final to be played in Wales will be Leicester's midfield pair Matt Jones and Robbie Savage. Perhaps the most inspired individual will, however, be Mark Hughes, who still combines playing for Blackburn with managing Wales. Seeking to deny him a 29th FA Cup goal in his 66th appearance in the competition will be Jurgen Sommer. Due to a goalkeeping crisis the American goalkeeper, once of Queen's Park Rangers and Luton, steps in for a solitary Bolton appearance five months after his last match, for New England Revolution in the States.

The bookies expect tomorrow's all-Premiership televised double-bill to produce the eventual winner. After the ridiculous scenario during the last round, when the fifth-round draw was made five minutes into Chelsea's tie at Gillingham, the sixth-round pairings will be chosen after the match at Anfield is concluded.

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