Saints fans haven’t had much to cheer about this season, but the FA Cup has provided a silver lining in a gloomy campaign and has kept open the prospect of a second Wembley cup final in two years, following last year’s run to the EFL Final.
This is the first time that Southampton have appeared in the last eight of the FA Cup since 2005, but having been drawn against League One side Wigan, they have a great chance of reaching the semi-finals, and from there they will have the opportunity to emulate the 2003 side that made the final, or even the legendary Cup winners of 1976.
Of course, at this stage of the competition, no game can be considered straightforward. It’s one of the reasons why the FA Cup is a great vehicle for football betting, as many smaller clubs raise their game while others rest key players, and Cup form can often be very different to league form, which can lead to some great odds. Some football punters betting on this match with Stakers will be hoping to profit from another famous FA Cup shock, while others will be relying on the Premier League club to get the job done and advance to the last four.
To set up that semi-final, however, the Saints will have to get past Wigan, and that won’t be easy. The League One side stunned English football when they dumped Manchester City out of the competition in the fifth round, thanks to a late Will Grigg goal, and that wasn’t their first Premier League scalp of the competition. Wigan have done it the hard way, beating Bournemouth in the third round and overcoming West Ham in the fourth.
Southampton’s path to the last eight hasn’t been much easier. They came through a potentially tricky third-round tie at Championship promotion contenders Fulham before edging narrow wins against Watford and fellow relegation strugglers West Brom. If you believe in omens, then it’s worth remembering that the 1976 side also beat West Brom in the fifth round on the way to their Wembley triumph.
Naturally, the Saints will be favourites to win this game, but it won’t be easy. Wigan are the toughest lower league opponent that Southampton could face. They’ve only lost three games at the DW Stadium all season, and dispatched Bournemouth, West Ham and City at home without conceding a goal. Although their Cup exploits have led to a string of league postponements that have seen them drop to third, they remain the best team in League One, with the division’s best goal-scoring and defensive records; and in Grigg they have the Cup’s top goal-scorer, ably supported by Nick Powell and winger Michael Jacobs.
Mauricio Pellegrino also has to have one eye on the relegation battle. One point clear of the drop zone, Saints have crucial matches against Newcastle and Swansea to prepare for, and have a potentially tricky run-in to the end of the Premier League season with fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City and trips to Everton and Leicester.
However, the Cup is also a distraction for Wigan. One of the dangers of playing lower league opposition is that if they have nothing to play for, the chance to progress deep into the FA Cup becomes their focus, and they can prepare more thoroughly for what is often a historical opportunity, making them much tougher to beat. That does not apply to Wigan.
One of several former Premiership sides to drop into League One after getting into financial difficulties, it was only five years ago that they were beating Manchester City to win the FA Cup under Roberto Martínez. Their manager, Paul Cook, has admitted that their progress to the quarter-finals has made it harder for them to sustain a promotion push, and for the Latics, getting back into the Championship is the main priority this season.
Pellegrino will be well aware of the threat that Wigan pose, and of the need to balance a determined effort to progress in the Cup with the essential priority of remaining in the Premier League. However, Saints have a deeper squad than many of their relegation rivals and should be able to maintain their efforts on two fronts. A place in the semi-finals, with a chance to progress to Wembley, would be a huge boost to their fans, who haven’t had much to cheer about this season. Let’s hope that they can emulate the heroes of ’76 and make us proud.