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Can a former League of Ireland favourite inspire an upset of Man City and more FA Cup talking points

Paul Cook’s Wigan take on Pep Guardiola’s men in the competition’s fifth round.

1. Will Huddersfield do the double over Man United?

Huddersfield Town v Manchester United - Premier League - John Smith's Stadium Huddersfield Town's Aaron Mooy (no.10) scores his side's first goal of the game against Man United last October. Source: Nigel French

IT MAY SEEM like a long time ago given the current issues at the club, but Man United actually had a quite promising start to this season.

Of the Red Devils’ opening seven games, they won six and drew one, with the prospect of a closely fought title race with neighbours City looking a distinct possibility at that point.

It was only on 21 October when signs of trouble first really became evident, as Jose Mourinho’s side were stunned 2-1 away to recently promoted Huddersfield.

And while United have since gained a degree of retribution with a 2-0 victory over the same opposition at Old Trafford earlier this month, problems still clearly exist at the club, as was obvious in their limp 1-0 loss to Newcastle last weekend.

It is not a crisis by any means yet, of course — trailing City by 16 points is not good enough for a club of their aspirations and resources, but they are at least still second in the league and in with a chance of claiming two trophies.

The problems in relation to Paul Pogba have been a concern, however, with rumours of a clash with Mourinho potentially leading to disastrous consequences for the club.

United’s last loss to Huddersfield proved a turning point in their season and was the real start of the decline that paved the way for City running away with the league.

Another defeat by David Wagner’s side could also prove a decisive moment in their season, as it would leave the Champions League as the only trophy left that the Old Trafford outfit could realistically hope to win.

Given all the millions Mourinho has spent, a season without a major honour would reflect poorly on everyone at the club and leave the manager open to accusations of leading the club in a backwards direction, after the positive steps last season in securing both the Europa League and the Carabao Cup.

Consequently, it is vital that United avoid a repeat of the embarrassing defeat they suffered at John Smith’s Stadium earlier this season.

2. What is going on at Chelsea?

It has been apparent for quite some time that Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is not a happy man.

He has made clear that the club’s transfer dealings have not always been to his satisfaction and the reluctance to pick certain senior players, such as David Luiz, have added to the impression that there is considerable tension at Stamford Bridge currently.

The reigning champions have not quite imploded as spectacularly as they did the season before last, but they have threatened to at times.

The Londoners’ recent form has been worrying — they are 19 points adrift of leaders City in fourth place, while back-to-back losses against Bournemouth (3-0) and Watford (4-1) earlier this month suggested the notoriously fragile dressing room ambiance had been badly damaged at Chelsea.

A 3-0 defeat of a West Brom side on Monday boosted morale, but did little to temper suspicions that deeper problems continue to exist at the club.

Beating a Hull team who are currently struggling at the wrong end of the Championship will hardly inspire talk of a revival either, but anything other than that could prove catastrophic given how perilous the situation at the club is already.

An upset is not beyond the realm of possibility, however, especially as the Blues will no doubt be prioritising their Champions League clash at home to Barcelona on Tuesday.

3. A less glamorous trip for Tottenham

One of the great aspects of the FA Cup continues to be the ties it throws up that can involve one of the best teams in Europe travelling to rather unforgiving and less-than-glamorous surroundings.

This week, a case in point is Tottenham’s visit to face League One side Rochdale at Spotland Stadium.

The game may not quite match the thrills of the Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night, when the North Londiners showed impressive resilience to recover and earn a 2-2 draw against an experienced Juventus team.

However, Spurs can hardly expect an easy ride, especially given what happened in the last round, when they needed a replay to beat League Two side Newport County.

In addition, one of the biggest criticisms that continues to be aimed at Mauricio Pochettino is his failure to land a major trophy in his managerial career thus far, despite all the other positives he has brought to the set-up Tottenham as well as the widespread belief that he is one of Europe’s outstanding young coaches.

With the Premier League all but out of reach and the Champions League still a somewhat distant dream given the calibre of sides involved, the FA Cup is probably Spurs’ best hope of winning a first major trophy since claiming the League Cup in 2008.

4. Can a former League of Ireland favourite inspire an upset of Man City?

Paul Cook File Photo File photo dated 27-01-2018 of Wigan Athletic manager Paul Cook. Source: Anthony Devlin

Man City have been so dominant this season that it is perhaps no surprise that they have appeared to let the tempo drop slightly of late.

In the past two months, the club have conceded points against Liverpool, Burnley and Crystal Palace. Despite these slip-ups though, Pep Guardiola’s side still hold a comprehensive 16-point lead at the top of the table.

City now need to win just six of their remaining 11 matches to be assured of Premier League glory, so really, it is a matter of when not if they lift the title.

They also have at worst a 50:50 chance of winning the League Cup when they meet Arsenal in the final on 25 February, so two titles are already within their grasp.

Anything else will be a bonus for a side that has undergone a remarkable transformation in the time since Guardiola was appointed.

Yet a serial winner like the Catalan coach will be still be intensively plotting Wigan’s downfall ahead of the sides’ meeting on Monday, and City have bad memories of the Lactics when it comes to the cup.

As recently as 2013, a Roberto Martinez-managed side relegated from the Premier League that season upset the heavy favourites in the final thanks to Ben Watson’s stoppage-time headed goal, with Roberto Mancini sacked as the Etihad outfit’s manager two days later.

And the following season, after Uwe Rosler had taken charge of the Championship club, they again stunned City in the quarter-finals of the competition.

Much has changed since then though, and while City are on the verge of claiming the Premier League title, Paul Cook’s men are battling for promotion from League One, with the Liverpool-born boss accustomed to inspiring sides to punch above their weight, having guided Sligo Rovers to two FAI Cup triumphs during a stint there that lasted just under five years.

However, given their current respective fortunes, a third consecutive cup upset at City’s expense would surely the biggest surprise of the lot.

5. Which of the underdogs will prevail?

The ‘magic of the FA Cup’ is by now a well-worn cliché and there is no doubt that the competition has lost some of its lustre, with the growth of the Champions League over the past two decades, along with the increased importance and financial incentives that go with a team’s league performance.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to take some joy in seeing a side such as, for instance, Newport, travelling to Wembley to face Premier League giants in Tottenham.

Six non-top-flight teams still remain in the competition — Sheffield Wednesday, Rochdale, Wigan, Coventry, Sheffield United and Hull City.

While all would probably prefer promotion from their respective leagues, for the romantics, a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup surely continues to be regarded as a significantly attractive alternative.

Upcoming FA Cup fifth round fixtures (all games kick off at 15.00 unless stated otherwise):

Friday

Leicester v Sheffield United (19.45)
Chelsea v Hull City (20.00)

Saturday

Sheffield Wednesday v Swansea (12.30)
Brighton v Coventry City
West Brom v Southampton
Huddersfield Town v Man United (17.30)

Sunday

Rochdale v Tottenham (16.00)

Monday

Wigan v Manchester City (19.55)

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Paul Fennessy

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