Two teams who have exceeded expectations in the Premier League this season now have a chance to book themselves a place in the FA Cup final when Watford and Wolverhampton Wanderers square off in their semi-final at Wembley on Sunday (4pm on BT Sport 2).
As we enter the final stretch of the campaign, Watford and Wolves are both still involved in the incredibly tight five-team scrap to finish seventh in the table. That is a position that would yield a place in next season’s Europa League if neither of them go on to win the FA Cup.
Regardless of how things eventually turn out in that battle, this will still represent a good season for both clubs. Lifting the FA Cup would, though, turn it into a great one. Watford were losing finalists in their mid-80s heyday but have never won it, while it is necessary to go back to 1960 to find the last of Wolves’ four triumphs in the competition.
Watford have undoubtedly had the easier route to the final four. They only two top-flight sides they have faced have been Newcastle and Crystal Palace, both of whom are currently in the bottom half of the table. Wolves had to overcome Liverpool and Manchester United on the route to Wembley, the latter in an impressive quarter-final display.
Those were just two of a series of impressive results against top clubs that Wolves have achieved this season. They have secured draws against four members of the top six and have triumphed at home to Chelsea and Manchester United, the latter in a 2-1 win on Tuesday, and away to Tottenham Hotspur. With a well-organised, counter-attacking approach, they have proved able competitors against such opposition.
The truth is that Wolves are fundamentally a good team, with underlying statistics that are more in line with those of the top six than those of the other teams battling away for seventh. They have won enough matches against those in and around them in the table to make up for less impressive results against those towards the bottom of the table.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have somewhat struggled in taking the initiative against some of the Premier League’s weakest teams. They are one of only two sides to have lost to bottom-of-the-pile Huddersfield this season. Not only that, but they have done so twice, alongside defeats to Cardiff, Burnley and Brighton. They only scored once across those five matches.
Watford, in contrast, have a terrible record against top-six sides, having lost nine and won just one of their 10 matches against them to date, and a much stronger series of results against the bottom eight. They have won eight, including a 4-1 thrashing of Fulham on Tuesday, drawn five and lost just one of their 14 matches against those sides to date.
That is perhaps a result of Watford’s more proactive approach in the defensive phase. They defend a bit higher and seek to break up opposition possession more aggressively than Wolves do. Top quality opponents are able to pick a way through and create good chances. Lesser opponents turn over possession more readily, providing Watford with opportunities to attack in transition.
Like Wolves, Watford also have a pretty good record against the teams surrounding them in the table, which has been sufficient to keep them in the race for seventh. With six matches still to play, they have already accumulated five more points than they did in the entirety of last season, which speaks well of the work Javi Gracia is doing there.
Like Nuno, Gracia would love to add a cup final appearance, perhaps even the trophy itself, to an already impressive campaign. When Watford and Wolves met in the league at Molineux earlier this season, it was a tight match, with an even spread of shots and quality of chances, but one from which Watford nevertheless emerged victorious thanks to quick-fire first-half goals from Etienne Capoue and Roberto Pereyra.
Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final is equally difficult to call. It could, in all honesty, go either way. A combination of a slightly more stable underlying structure and a marginal advantage in terms of player quality should be enough to see Wolves to victory.