In recent years, the FA Cup has been accused of lacking real importance, now seemingly a lesser triumph than qualifying for the Champions League.
But with Manchester United and West Ham both unlikely to finish in the Premier League’s top four this season – although the current gap in points between themselves and fourth-placed Manchester City is by no means insurmountable – both clubs will be particularly desperate to progress to the semi-finals upon facing each other at 4pm on Sunday.
Indeed, Louis van Gaal needs a trophy to gloss over an otherwise disappointing season at Old Trafford, whilst the FA Cup would represent the phenomenal progress West Ham have made under Slaven Bilic this term – just as they prepare for a historic move to the Olympic Stadium.
With so much on the line and just three points separating the sides in the Premier League table, however, Sunday’s match could well be decided by who dominates the key individual battles. Here are FIVE Football Fancast view as the most important.
Diafra Sakho had a huge impact after coming on for the final half an hour against Everton last weekend, grabbing a goal to draw West Ham level before providing the assist to Dimitri Payet as Slaven Bilic’s side completed an impressive comeback.
So logic suggests the Senegal international will get the nod up front against Manchester United on Sunday. Emmanuel Emenike bagged a brace upon his FA Cup debut against Blackburn Rovers last month but has otherwise disappointed, whilst Enner Valencia remains an injury doubt and Andy Carroll is on the most part a supersub in Bilic’s plans.
The 26-year-old hasn’t managed to revive his near one-in-two strike rate from last season amid an injury-hit campaign, but he’s a hardworking, physical and talented striker who adds real penetration to West Ham’s attack.
Consequentially, the task of stopping him on Sunday must predominantly fall to Chris Smalling, an awkward and gangly centre-half reminiscent of a modern day Martin Keown. He’s got the power and pace to curtail Sakho’s, but hasn’t exactly been enjoying the best form of late. Indeed, United have kept just two clean sheets from the England international’s last eight appearances.
With Didier Deschamps ruling Dimitri Payet out of contention for his Euro 2016 squad, I’m sure the Hammers talisman will relish the chance of embarrassing Morgan Schneiderlin, a fellow France international in with a good chance of making it to the Euros after amassing eight caps during 2015 alone.
Needless to say, the former Marseille man has become one of the stories of the season in the Premier League. He’s bagged eight goals and seven assists in 23 appearances and is already a cult hero down at Upton Park, echoing the attacking brilliance that once had fans treating Paulo Di Canio like a demi-god.
The 28-year-old’s technical quality and spatial awareness is up there with the best and the latter is what Schneiderlin will have to defend against most. Payet has been deployed in a number of positions this season and West Ham have utilised a variety of formations, but the French maestro always ends up causing damage from the pocket between midfield and attack.
Consequentially, Schneiderlin needs to control that zone for the full ninety minutes. The 26-year-old’s United spell has underwhelmed thus far, but he proved a real talent in the holding role at Southampton.
It remains to be seen who Louis van Gaal will utilise as the spearhead of United’s attack on Sunday. Marcus Rashford exploded onto the scene with four goals and one assist in his first two appearances for the Red Devils but struggled to have the same impact against Watford and West Brom and found himself fielded out wide during the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool in midweek.
That saw Anthony Martial take his spot as centre-forward, a likewise talent blessed with great power, pace and composure for a player so young. Consequentially, it’s a real tossup between the two, but both should be involved in the United starting Xi.
Either way, West Ham centre-back Angelo Ogbonna has proved himself a particularly tough customer since arriving from Juventus during the summer. The 27-year-old has brought Champions League quality to the Hammers’ backline and it really tells in the statistics – from the 21 fixtures he’s been involved in this season, West Ham have kept ten clean sheets.
Marcos Rojo has returned to the starting line up just when Manchester United need him most, filling the void at left-back that has constantly plagued the Red Devils since Luke Shaw’s season-ending injury all the way back in September.
The Argentina international is a versatile defender who offers unique height and power at No.3, but he looks set to have his hands full on Sunday if Slaven Bilic continues to select the in-form Michail Antonio in the right-hand role – either as a wing-back or an out-and-out winger – as expected.
Indeed, the 25-year-old is amid a sensational scoring run for the Hammers, bagging five goals in his last eight appearances across all competitions and three strikes in his last three outings – including winners against West Ham and Sunderland.
He’s not scintillatingly quick but boasts great strength, good movement and a lethal eye for goal with real poacher instincts, so Rojo can’t let the winger-forward out of his sight.
Juan Mata hasn’t been enjoying his best form of late or for that matter, throughout the season in general. Nonetheless, we’re all well aware of how talented a player the Spaniard is and on paper at least, he remains Manchester United’s strongest asset and biggest threat in the middle to final third.
He ranks third and second for Premier League goals and assists respectively throughout United’s squad and output remains the 27-year-old’s defining ability, so any space around or in the box is a real no-no from the Hammers’ perspective.
He’s found himself deployed as a centre-back in recent weeks, but something tells me Cheikhou Kouyate will return to the engine room this weekend and the Senegal international is the ideal candidate to curtail Mata’s influence for two key reasons.
First of all, the 26-year-old is a phenomenal enforcer. His energy is simply incredible and he’s averaged an impressive 2.9 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2.5 successful aerial duels this term, so has a good chance of keeping Mata quiet.
Perhaps more importantly, considering he’ll probably be the Hammers’ deepest-lying midfielder and Mata is famed for his almost hilarious inability to effectively track back, Kouyate has a real knack for breaking through from midfield with powerful runs.
So if he manages to run off the back of Mata, Kouyate could make a real difference for West Ham in the final third. He’s netted four times in the Premier League already this season.