STEVENAGE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: Stevenage manager Gary Smith during a Stevenage training session to preview their FA Cup match with Tottenham Hotspur on February 16, 2012 in Stevenage, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool have their tickets to the quarter final half-booked while Bolton, Everton and Norwich look to be the most vulnerable top-flight sides.
There was a time, as there often is, when it looked as though the latter stages of the FA Cup might be a little bit interesting this season.
Many Premier League teams were out of the competition, and a draw that pitted even a few of the remaining big boys against one another could have set up a very interesting quarterfinal. But as we know, that didn't happen. Only one of this round's matchups involves two top-flight sides, and though a few decent Championship sides could plausibly snag a win, the most likely outcome is a final eight composed entirely of Premier League sides.
The biggest match of the weekend has resurgent Sunderland hosting decidedly non-resurgent Arsenal at the Stadium of Light, and it's tough to see the Gunners as favorites given the way things have been going for the respective sides.
Arsenal are fresh off an embarrassing mid-week performance against AC Milan that has almost certainly doomed them to an early Champions League exit, and there aren't a whole lot of signals coming from North London that make a bounce-back performance seem especially likely. While it's true that Arsenal just ended a four-game Black Cats unbeaten streak just one week ago at this very same venue, they weren't especially impressive in doing so, and it took a stoppage time winner from Thierry Henry -- who has since returned to New York Red Bulls to prepare for the MLS season -- to give them the points. Arsenal clearly retain the edge in talent, but if the Gunners can't figure out to improve on the display they put on at the San Siro by about tenfold, there's just not a lot of reason to have much confidence in their chances.
The other games to watch this weekend will be the ones with the highest upset potential: Millwall vs. Bolton, Everton vs. Blackpool and Norwich vs. Leicester. Note that none of the three Championship sides are anywhere close to favorites to advance; Millwall has had a torrid time of things this season, Blackpool has the same problems that saw them bounced from the Premier League a season ago, and though Leicester are much improved, Norwich looks to be settling in for an extended stay in the top flight. But these games all bring with them a plausible path to victory for the underdogs, which is more than can be said for the rest of the slate. Bolton looks the most vulnerable, as any team that concedes so often is at risk of losing, no matter the competition.
Elsewhere, everyone's least favorite minnow Crawley Town hosts everyone's least favorite Premier League side Stoke City. It takes a pretty repugnant backstory to make neutrals root for a League Two side over organized violence merchants Stoke City, but somehow Crawley has found a way. Birmingham has been torching the Championship of late and Chris Hughton's side look the most capable of a deep run of the remaining second division teams, but a trip to Stamford Bridge was just about the worst outcome they could have hoped for. It's almost a shame they'll likely get torched. Almost. And of course there's Liverpool hosting Brighton and Spurs traveling to Stevenage, which should be very competitive games that leave the hearts of fans everywhere lodged firmly in their throats.
A full list of this week's fixtures can be found below.
Chelsea vs. Birmingham City, 2/18/2012 (12:30 GMT/7:30 AM ET)
Everton vs. Blackpool, 2/18/2012 (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Millwall vs. Bolton Wanderers, 2/18/2012 (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Norwich City vs. Leicester City, 2/18/2012 (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Sunderland vs. Arsenal, 2/18/2012 (17:15 GMT/12:15 PM ET)
Crawley Town vs. Stoke City, 2/19/2012 (12:00 GMT/7:00 AM ET)
Stevenage vs. Tottenham Hotspur, 2/19/2012 (14:00 GMT/9:00 AM ET)
Liverpool vs. Brighton & Hove Albion, 2/19/2012 (16:30 GMT/11:30 AM ET)