Unusual suspects on brink of glory

Glenn Moore looks forward to this weekend's intriguing FA Cup sixth-round ties

The most romantic FA Cup in living memory, or the poorest? It is all a question of perspective. This weekend's quarter-finals are certainly one of the most unusual in the old pot's 126-year history. With only two contenders having lifted the trophy in the last 50 years the pedigree is more mongrel than thoroughbred.

However, we could yet have a final featuring Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Franck Leboeuf, Mark Hughes, Emerson, Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. The worldwide television audience which will be tuning in on 17 May would be thrilled by that international collection.

Or they could be puzzled by the sight of Portsmouth against either Wrexham or Chesterfield. That unlikely prospect would be the first final without a top-flight team involved. Romantic? Or anticlimatic?

The only sixth-round tie being played on schedule today has romance aplenty. Derby County's tie with Middlesbrough will be the Baseball Ground's last FA Cup tie after 101 years and 137 ties, it even hosted two semi-finals at the turn of the century. The ghosts of Bloomer, Doherty and Carter will be watching as Ravanelli, Juninho, Igor Stimac and Aljosa Asanovic seek to become the first Italian, Brazilian and Croats respectively to play in the final.

The match will also be Martin Taylor's first for Derby since breaking his left leg against Southend in October 1994. He replaces Russell Hoult who has been dropped after conceding 16 goals in five games, six against Middlesbrough in midweek.

Taylor, 30, has played half-a-dozen matches on loan to Crewe this season but was so depressed after them he engaged a sports psychologist to lift his confidence. He has since been playing well in the reserves but Jim Smith was still asked if his decision was "a gamble''.

"Not as big a gamble as playing Russell," the County manager said. "On Wednesday night his positional sense for the first two goals made him look as if he had never played in goal before. I'm doing Russell a favour. No one wants to come out but if you are having a bad run it's curtains for the team."

Bottom-placed Boro have not won away in the Premiership since September but in the cups they have been as different as Danny and Kenneth Baker. They have won all nine matches, three of them away from the Riverside. They also have goalkeeper problems with Mark Schwarzer cup-tied. Emerson is injured while Derby have Dean Sturridge suspended.

Middlesbrough, despite the goals of Camsell, Mannion and Clough, have never gone beyond this stage. Nor have Wrexham while Chesterfield had never even reached it before. The other five survivors have all won the competition but only Sir Bert Millichip's generation are likely to remember them all.

Lawrie Sanchez won the cup for Wimbledon in 1988 and David Webb for Chelsea in 1970 but after that you have to go back to the days of sepia prints, Movietone pictures, cloth caps and Woodbines. Derby and Portsmouth won either side of the war while Sheffield Wednesday last won the Cup in the reign of George V in 1935 - they received it from his son, Edward, who would soon be crowned, then abdicate.

Wednesday, beaten once in 22 matches and not since September at home are beginning to fancy their chances this year. Opponents Wimbledon, who have already played six more games than Wednesday, are showing signs of tiring - not that anyone would dare write them off. Kevin Pressman can be expected to clear the ball rather quicker than usual, in the league game at Selhurst Efan Ekoku dispossesed him and scored after two minutes.

Hillsbrough will host the BBC's live match tomorrow, those with access to Sky can warm up with Portsmouth-Chelsea while Welsh viewers can follow Wrexham's trip to Chesterfield. The winners will be the first team from the third level (now Second Division) to reach the last four since Plymouth in 1984.

Wrexham could even become the second team, after Cardiff in 1927, to take the FA Cup out of England. If they did so, they would not be allowed to represent England in the European Cup-Winners' Cup, the runners-up would qualify instead.

Portsmouth may be a better bet to be the first winners from outside the elite since Sunderland in 1973. As the First Division's form team they will not fear Chelsea, especially as Zola is beginning to suffer from the pace and frequency of English games. Terry Venables at Wembley?

Meanwhile, in the Premiership, Manchester United could go seven points clear and Middlesbrough be cast eight points from safety.

After losing 4-0 at home to Tottenham in midweek the last thing Peter Reid needed was United's midweek demolition of Porto. Sunderland pushed United close in the FA Cup last year but lost 5-0 at Old Trafford in December and, having scored once in seven games, must fear the worst.

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