A LITTLE of the FA Cup's magic disappeared when television ordered the sixth round to be spread over 55 hours, but the world's oldest knock-out competition has relinquished none of its fabled unpredictability.
Of the eight contestants still standing in the 112th FA Cup, none are cast-iron favourites. Even the bookies are justified in calling it the most open race in years.
Arsenal, whose game has hardly been at fever pitch recently, are rated 7-2 favourites but George Graham disagrees. 'We're the underdogs,' the Arsenal manager said. Their opponents this afternoon, Ipswich, are priced at 6-1 to win their first FA Cup since 1978 when Roger Osborne scored the only goal to outshine Arsenal. 'We were the underdogs but on the day we hammered them,' John Wark, a 20-year-old medal- winner in Town's colours that day, said.
The Scotsman's experience will be paramount in what should be a close contest. The key will be how Wark's defence cope with Arsenal's forwards, who are preserving their most prolific form for the cups.
Graham has all his senior strikers available - a rare pleasure - and will be looking for more cup capers of the positive kind from Ian Wright. The striker's aim has been unerring when the Twin Towers have been the target as Yeovil (hit by a hat-trick), Leeds and Nottingham Forest (a brace against both clubs) discovered.
Wright's England colleagues, Alan Smith and Paul Merson, are available for selection but arguably of more importance is the recall to arms of Tony Adams following an accident that required 29 stitches to a head wound.
In such an open race the man to spike Arsenal's guns may be one with a qualification from the Open University. Clive Baker, Ipswich's unsung goalkeeper with the degree in maths, has used his knowledge of tight angles to total 11 clean sheets - including one at Highbury - since replacing Craig Forrest in October. 'I look back and just wonder what might have been if I had got that break a bit earlier,' Baker said.
Although Arsenal and Sheffield United, who face Blackburn, are away there will be plenty of fans filling Highbury and Bramall Lane where giant video screens are in place. The Starvision installers, Screenco, announced that these had been set up for today's 'quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup' - which will be a surprise for United, who have already been knocked out, and a disappointment for semi-finalists Arsenal.
The Blades regained their cutting edge in midweek against Spurs, six of the Bassett best punishing Jason Cundy and Co. After that display, and given Dave Bassett's knack of getting the most from his players, punters may be tempted by the 4-1 on offer for a United win at Ewood Park today.
Kenny Dalglish, of course, has other plans, and his Rovers will be strengthened by the expected return of Kevin Moran, a defender chasing a hat-trick of winners' medals. Tim Sherwood awaits a two-match ban after his midweek dismissal and will be hoping to sign off in style today and in the real Coca-Cola thing next week.
Spare a thought for Ray Ranson, Manchester City's veteran full-back. Ranson represented City when they lost the 1981 final to Spurs, but he may be dropped for tomorrow's reprise. Keith Curle is fit again and Ranson may be the odd one out when Peter Reid reshuffles his back-four.
Spurs will be without Nick Barmby, tackling Korea in Australia, but have the inspirational figure of Neil Ruddock back after suspension. Following tomorrow's televised tie, the semi-final draw will be made live on BBC. So Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday, combatants on Monday night, will at least reach the velvet bag.
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