Suddenly, it all seems so tantalisingly close. As the 16 teams left in the FA Cup prepare for their upcoming games in the competition, they know they are just three wins (or, alternatively, five draws and three penalty shootouts) away from reaching a Wembley final and a (possibly rare, depending on which team we are talking about) chance at glory.
Six of the 16 teams left in the competition reside outside the Premier League—and at least one is guaranteed to reach the quarter-finals—which either opens up the list of potential winners or narrows it down, depending on your point of view and how cynical you are.
Holders Arsenal remain obvious favourites, alongside Manchester United (who are yet to be drawn against a side from England's top-two divisions) and perhaps Liverpool, who will have to overcome a difficult trip to Crystal Palace (a side they have struggled against in recent meetings) before they can start thinking seriously about a trip to Wembley.
Beyond that, however, the draw looks wide open for almost any participant to push forward and grab destiny (and other such cliches). Two other all-Premier League ties offer great opportunities for one of the league's less prominent sides to make it into the last eight, while Stoke City, who have already beaten Arsenal this season, and Sunderland travel to lower-league opposition with high hopes.
We have seen such confidence to be misplaced before, however; just ask Chelsea or Manchester City how that can go.
As Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said of opponents Middlesbrough, via the London Evening Standard:
We won't be surprised by them. At least we will not have the excuse to be surprised because they beat Manchester City in a convincing way. That is a good warning for us.
We are at home, we have a possibility to go to the quarter-finals so we cannot be surprised by them, that's for sure. In the Championship, any team that play at the top are a danger for any Premier League team.
They are well-organised, play good football with good pace and they are very creative. You look at their recent record in the Championship and it's impressive. They're on a strong run and, of course, we want to stop that.
Yet, despite that awareness and the obvious and tantalising opportunity on offer to all 16 teams left in the competition, it will be interesting to see just how many of them do not rotate their side significantly for these games.
It seems a safe bet that all 10 Premier League teams left in the competition will change their starting XIs to varying extents, while some of the Football League sides left in the competition could shift things around a bit, especially with many of them still fighting to realise their ambitions in their respective leagues.
Wenger has already pledged a few changes, with Wojciech Szczesny returning in goal and January signing Gabriel Paulista likely to see some action. Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez will miss out due to injury, forcing the manager's hand to some extent.
It is a process of rotation likely to be replicated among most of the sides, with those lucky enough to have two quality goalkeepers giving their back-up a start, while also blooding any new faces and perhaps resting some overworked key figures.
Glory may only be a few steps away for all 16 teams, but it is still far enough away for managers to treat it as nothing more than a secondary priority.
FA Cup 5th-Round Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. GMT (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
West Bromwich Albion vs. West Ham United (12:45 p.m.)
Derby County vs. Reading
Blackburn Rovers vs. Stoke City
Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool (5:30 p.m.)
Aston Villa vs. Leicester City (12:30 p.m.)
Bradford City vs. Sunderland (2:30 p.m.)
Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough (4 p.m.)
Preston North End vs. Manchester United (7:45 p.m.)
1. What to Watch Out for This Week
Long-Ball United Given a Weekend Off?
Louis van Gaal caused a real stir when he made the unexpected decision to respond—in blunt, head-on fashion—to Sam Allardyce's mischievous comment that Manchester United were a "long-ball" team, after Van Gaal had used Marouane Fellaini's size and aerial ability to help claim a draw against West Ham at Upton Park.
Van Gaal produced a dossier to refute Allardyce's allegations, although the evidence presented by the Dutchman was hardly conclusive. Many observers thought Van Gaal had cracked—some initially suggested it was his Rafa Benitez "facts" moment—but in reality, we were perhaps getting our first taste of Van Gaal's arrogant, belligerent side, an aspect apparently well known on the continent and at some of his previous coaching stops.
"I am sorry, but we are playing ball possession play and after 70 minutes we did not succeed, in spite of many chances in the second half, then I changed my playing style," Van Gaal said, per Sky Sports.
"Then, of course, with the quality of Fellaini, we played more forward balls and we scored from that, so I think it was a very good decision of the manager."
Van Gaal got involved in the spat simply because he wanted to, because he relishes the duel and always wants to be proved right. In this instance, it was hard to completely agree with his assertions—but that will probably not shake his own convictions one iota.
One thing is for sure, however: If he has to resort to the "Marouane Fellaini and the Long Balls" tribute act against League One Preston on Monday, he will struggle to argue his case in the aftermath.
Can Bradford Extend Remarkable Recent Cup Run?
Capital One Cup finalists just two years ago, only Sunderland stand between Bradford and a place in the last eight of this year's FA Cup.
On paper, they would appear to have a great chance; having beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the last round, the Black Cats will hold no fear for the Bantams, especially with the game taking place at Valley Parade.
The pitch at Bradford is renowned for being awful, something Sunderland boss Gus Poyet has been keen to point out ahead of the match. But it feels a bit like a pre-emptive excuse, the boss already looking to justify a disappointing result for his team.
Per Sky Sports, Poyet said:
It's going to be tough after what Bradford did because they did something incredible. And we are already talking about their pitch, which everyone knows is one of the worst in the country.
So that is going to make the game different. It won't be a passing game.
Maybe we'll have to play a little more direct. Maybe I'm going to ask the groundsman at our training ground to mash one of the pitches and train on it the week before.
McClaren's Day of Decisions
Derby face Reading in the only all-Championship tie, a game that will be repeated on the last day of the season—in which the Rams could be fighting to secure their Premier League promotion.
Considering Derby's league ambitions (and how very tight it is at the top of the Championship), it will be interesting to see how much manager Steve McClaren changes his side. Something of a cup specialist during his time at Middlesbrough, will the ex-England manager see this tie as a glorious opportunity to make a deep run in the competition, or a distraction from the task in hand that he would not be too disappointed to walk away from?
McClaren's personal situation perhaps confuses things further: He is apparently a favorite for Aston Villa, although it appears he will stay with the Rams until at least the end of the season.
"I have a job to do here, and I'm solely focusing on trying to get Derby into the Premier League," he told Sky Sports.
"We've got a very, very good chance and everything else is speculation. We've got 16 games to go and have a chance of achieving what we want to achieve and I'm not going to walk away from it."
2. Video of the Week
3. Player to Watch
If the current hysteria surrounding Harry Kane once again confirmed that English football is always looking for its next big star, then it seems highly probable that Patrick Bamford's moment in the spotlight is going to come sooner rather than later.
At 21, Bamford is the same age as Kane, so in some respects, his development has been slower. The striker has a deeper breadth of goalscoring experience, however, having scored at an impressive rate on every loan stop he has made since Chelsea signed him from boyhood club Nottingham Forest in 2012.
Currently at Middlesbrough (having previously turned out for both MK Dons and Derby County), he is forming one half of a lethal strike partnership with Belgian Jelle Vossen. The duo, ably assisted by Lee Tomlin, put Manchester City out of the competition in the last round and will be looking to the same thing against Arsenal.
Bamford's biggest attribute seems to be his intelligence—he has a good understanding of where he needs to be in order to cause the most damage that, when paired with an instinctive finishing ability, adds up to a strong goalscoring record.
It seems only a matter of time until he steps up to the Premier League (one way or another, he will surely be playing there next season), at which point he might start breaking into the wider footballing consciousness. But that does not mean Arsenal should treat him with any less respect this weekend.
4. Game of the Weekend
Aston Villa vs. Leicester City
There can no longer be any debate about where exactly success in the cup competitions ranks in the minds of the chairman and owners of also-ran Premier League sides. Knockout success is pretty much unimportant if top-flight status remains perilous, as shown by Aston Villa's sacking of Paul Lambert in midweek.
Lambert had steered Villa to within two wins of a date at Wembley, yet he was removed (apparently with a clinical detachment) because the club are in very real danger of being relegated from the Premier League. That is just the nature of the modern game.
Nigel Pearson could lead his side into the quarter-finals this weekend, but you can be sure it will have absolutely no bearing on his ongoing job status with the Foxes.
This last-16 tie is simultaneously utterly unimportant and highly significant, then. The league might be the overriding priority, but both squads desperately need to acquire some sort of form, confidence and winning habit, making this game a perfect environment to try to develop all three.
Fans will be disappointed if their side goes out at this stage but, like the men in charge, will accept that being able to focus on the league is probably no bad thing.
"We are getting a little bit frustrated at being talked about as being unlucky," Pearson said following Tuesday's defeat to Arsenal, per the Leicester Mercury. "It is a challenge for us, we have got to start turning these types of performances into results.
"Games like Arsenal, against a top side, are probably a bit of a bonus game. Our results against sides in and around us are going to be pivotal. We cannot afford to continue this 'We played well—unlucky.'"
Villa cannot even say they have played well for much of this season, perhaps part of the reason why Lambert was not permitted to see the season out. His sacking seemingly underlines the gravity of the situation at Villa Park, given a hierarchy that has previously backed Lambert pretty unequivocally felt the need to make a swift and decisive change.
This cup tie becomes something a "free game" for them, then, as they look to turn things around with a new man in charge. For both clubs, this feels like a low point in their season, but come May, it could also be the point where the campaign turned into one in which they reached a domestic cup final and secured Premier League survival.