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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
 

Some people are never satisfied. In the past 12 seasons, when the FA Cup was won every time by one of English football's Big Four teams, the complaint was that the competition had lost its fairy-tale magic and the age of the giant-killers was long gone.

This season, when the Big Four have been shot down one by one, there have been suggestions that the turnaround is due to the Big Four placing more emphasis on the Champions League and treating the FA Cup as a sideshow.

Whether the Big Four win or lose, it seems, the FA Cup is devalued. Either because the Big Four care too much about winning, or because they do not care enough. The logic of the argument is difficult to fathom.

The latest bellyaching about the FA Cup's status appears to be an overreaction to what may well be a short-lived trend, just as this season's English domination of the Champions League is widely perceived as a sure sign of the Premier League's pre-eminence in Europe.

On that point, it might be remembered that many commentators proclaimed the renaissance of Serie A when it provided three Champions League semi-finalists and both finalists in the 2002/03 season, yet since then Milan are the only Italian club to have reached the semi-finals.

To some extent, it is surprising that the Big Four's domination of the FA Cup lasted so long, as the best teams are less likely to come out on top again and again in a cup competition than they are in a season-long league format, which is a truer test of quality.

A cup format will occasionally, though not often, throw up a semi-final line-up like the one that will grace Wembley this weekend. Portsmouth are the only representatives from the Premier League, which raises the possibility that West Brom, Cardiff or Barnsley could become the first team from outside the top flight to lift the trophy since West Ham in 1980 and only the ninth in the long history of the competition.

It is a pity that Portsmouth and West Brom were drawn against each other in tonight's first semi-final, as they are the best teams left in the competition and both have an attacking philosophy that might have produced one of the more entertaining finals of recent years.

Arguably, in this season of upsets, West Brom have done least to deserve a place in the semi-finals, as Portsmouth will be the first Premier League team they have faced. Barnsley, by contrast, opened up the competition for the rest by knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea, while Cardiff played their part with a quarter-final win at Middlesbrough.

Portsmouth took the biggest scalp of all with their quarter-final success at Manchester United and they are strong favourites to go on to lift the trophy on May 17. Deservedly so, because the cream tends to rise to the top at the business end of the FA Cup, and they will be even stronger favourites if they get past West Brom.

Since West Ham's 1980 triumph, the higher-placed team (either in the same division or from a higher division) has won 74 per cent of the semi-finals, which points to Portsmouth and Cardiff as the most likely finalists. Portsmouth are 18 league places above West Brom, while Cardiff are nine places and 10 points ahead of fellow Championship side Barnsley.

The stats are particularly strong for Portsmouth as the Premier League side has won 12 of the 14 Premier v Championship semi-finals since 1980.

Another key factor in favour of Portsmouth, as well as Cardiff, is that they have better away records than their semi-final opponents, which is significant now that the rest of the competition will be played on neutral territory. Teams that can take their form on the road usually have the upper hand in such encounters.

Portsmouth rank sixth on away form in the Premier League (matching their overall league position) while West Brom are fourth in the Championship but rank 10th on away form, making them the worst away side in the promotion and play-off places.

Cardiff are 12th on away form in the Championship (again a perfect match for their overall league position).

That is nothing special, but still much better than Barnsley, who have the worst away record in the Championship with only one win from 20 trips.

Barnsley supporters will point to their team's tremendous FA Cup win at Anfield as proof that they can perform on the road but there is no doubt that, on the whole, Barnsley produce their best displays at home. In that context, it is another positive for Cardiff that they drew this season's league visit to Barnsley, who rank seventh on home form in the Championship.

Thirty of the past 40 semi-finals have been settled in 90 minutes, and seven of the semis that went to extra time featured two Premier League sides, which is a reassuring statistic for those looking to follow the advice by backing Portsmouth and Cardiff wins. In Portsmouth's case, 11 of the 14 Premier v Championship semi-finals since 1980 have been decided without the need for extra time.

SHORTLIST:

Wigan, QPR, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Millwall, Oldham, Tranmere, Udinese, Leverkusen.

BEST BETS:

$100 Wigan (HW, Sat), Millwall (HW, Sat), Tranmere (handicap, Sat), Udinese (handicap, Sun). Last week: two winning bets out of three.

FORM FACT:

Middlesbrough, who host Manchester United tomorrow night, have been the best non-Big Four team at home to Big Four visitors in the past three seasons, with five wins and four draws out of 11

Champions hangover

Wins out of eight for Chelsea in their next game after a Champions League tie this season : 3

Wigan wonders

Home wins out of eight for Wigan against teams outside the top eight. They can beat Birmingham : 6

Wobbly Walsall

Wins out of 10 at home for Walsall against top-half teams, which gives sixth-placed Tranmere a good chance on the handicap: 1

Gills have their ills

Consecutive away defeats in League One for Gillingham, who look vulnerable again at Millwall: 8

Easy for Udinese

Defeats out of 16 for Udinese against bottom-half teams in Serie A, giving them good prospects at Siena: 2

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