With the major European football leagues entering their final phase of the season, those teams expected to challenge for the respective league titles are emerging as leading contenders to claim the domestic crowns. Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona lead the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga, but in both Germany, England and France, it is lower tier teams securing the opportunity to clinch silverware in the cup competitions, as they aim to defy their more illustrious top flight challengers.
In the English FA Cup, Championship team Reading remain as the sole representatives of lower league outfits in the semi-final draw and they are tasked with beating Arsenal, and a tie against either Liverpool or Aston Villa awaits the successful team in a Wembley cup final. Reading have yet to face a Premier League team in this season’s FA Cup competition and have endured a fairly troubled second tier campaign to date, but the appointment of Steve Clarke as manager in December has coincided with a slight upturn in results. Yet Arsenal have won their latest seven competitive fixtures, including the defeats of both Monaco and Manchester United on away soil, so Reading will be aware of the difficult task ahead.
Meanwhile in France, Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain have qualified for the Coupe de France final in which they will face Ligue 2 team Auxerre. The Burgundy based team have won the French cup competition on four previous occasions and secured the Lique 1 title for the only time in 1996, but each of those honours was claimed with the legendary Guy Roux as manager. Roux devoted more than 40 years of his life to managing Auxerre in their most successful ever period and he may appear at the Stade de France to watch the final after his former team beat current cup holders Guingamp 1-0 in a semi-final tie this week despite playing with 10 men for the last 17 minutes.
As for the German DFB Pokal Cup, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg have all sealed their positions in the semi-finals, but Bundesliga second-placed Wolfsburg are tasked with facing third tier team DSC Arminia Bielefeld after the 3.Liga leaders claimed a dramatic victory against Borussia Monchengladbach on penalties in this week’s quarter-finals. Although Bielefeld have won the Bundesliga 2 on three previous occasion, they have yet to clinch any major domestic silverware but having already beaten top flight teams Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen in this season’s competition, who would bet against the team from North Rhine-Westphalia reaching their first ever DFB final.
Such surprises in these domestic cup competitions can arguably provide a more interesting distraction from the more predictable league campaigns during which superior squads and quality eventually emerged at the forefront.