While Manchesters United and City battled it out to reach the FA Cup final, many were treating it like the end event itself. City certainly were, celebrating on the pitch after earning a Yaya-Toure-powered 1-0 win over their hated rivals as the red half of Manchester trudged off in disbelief. However, Roberto Mancini's side haven't won the trophy just yet, and now Stoke City and Bolton wanderers are doing battle for the right to take them on in May. Which team will get through? Well, that's a tricky question.
Under Tony Pullis, Stoke seemed to be remaking themselves into a more stylish team with players like Eidur Gudjohnsson and Tuncay joining the fold only for a major clearout in January returning the Potters to their hit-it-long-and-fight-like-devils roots. Nobody epitomises the side better than long throw specialist Rory Delap, who is something approaching useless in the midfield* but an absolute terror when he has the ball in his hands anywhere inside the opponent's final third.
Delap has just sign a new contract extension that will keep him at Stoke until 2013, which rather sums up the whole club. They have excellent pacy player who can take advantage of slip-ups down the right, tall forward who'll bully defences in the air, and a back line more than happy to lay in crunching tackles left and right to keep their opponents at bay. Stoke are, well, Stokey, and they do it better than almost anybody else.
Bolton, on the other hand, are very much remade under the tutelage of Owen Coyle, who's turned them from an Allardycian horror show into something approximating a pass-and-move side. Sometimes they're not particularly good at that, but it's the thought that counts and the Trotters are certainly good enough at what they do to compete for European slots with the current side. Between Johan Elmander, Kevin Davies, and Chelsea loanee Daniel Sturridge, they've been scoring goals for fun lately, and are currently in 8th place in the Premier League.
Bolton cannot reasonably harbour expectations of qualifying for Europe through their league position - only 5th and above will be good enough this season - but with Manchester City expected to at least qualify for the Europa League via a top-five finish the losing FA Cup finalists (should they indeed lose to City) will also receive a Europa League berth. For Stoke, that would be a luxury, but for Bolton it would represent a very real step forward for the club's ambitions.That said, both teams would love to add the FA Cup to their collections, and each has a decent chance of lifting the trophy against Manchester City should they manage to make it through tomorrow's match.
On paper, Bolton are the better side, but Stoke haven't been lately and they have a few key advantages - namely the fact that one of their best players isn't cup tied. Don't be shocked to see them pushing each other very very close during Sunday's FA Cup semi-final clash.
*Ok, that's an exaggeration. He's just not particularly good.
Injuries and Suspensions
Stoke defender Danny Higgenbotham is out for the season after rupturing a cruciate ligament two weeks ago against Chelsea, but the big omission from either side is Danny Sturridge, who is ineligible to play for Bolton after being fielded by his parent club Chelsea during their 7-0 third round rout of Ipswich at Stamford Bridge. Coyle will presumably juggle his side to accommodate the England U-21 international's absence, but Sturridge has been in fine scoring form since joining Bolton on loan and he'll be very difficult to replace.
4:00 PM GMT (11:00 AM EST), Sunday April 17th.
After the underdogs won at Wembley on Saturday, it seems a little foolish being confident that the better team will prevail. That said, I think Bolton will probably squeak through after a very difficult match - probably in extra time. Bolton Wanderers 2-1 Stoke City (AET).