Underdogs have their day
The national cups possess that special magic that often sees footballing minnows thrust into the spotlight. And this season more than most, the legend of David and Goliath has been re-enacted on grounds across Europe, with many a 'minnow' proving more than a match for a football behemoth.
The next and potentially most dramatic chapter in this refreshing reversal of the established order comes on Saturday 17 May, when Cardiff City take on Portsmouth (sixth in the Premier League) in the FA Cup Final. While the Welsh outfit were blessed with a fairly favourable draw up until the quarter-finals, they then proceeded to brush aside first Middlesbrough (2-0) and then a Barnsley side (1-0) that had themselves performed miracles to reach that stage.
In this historic edition, the upsets have come thick and fast since the third round of the competition in January. The presence of Chasetown, the lowest-ranked club ever to reach that stage of the famous old tournament, proved a portent of the upheaval to come.
First of all, Coventry City, fresh from dumping Manchester United out of the League Cup a few weeks earlier, made short work of Blackburn Rovers (4-1), while Havant and Waterlooville outclassed Swansea City (4-2), and Oldham pulled off a memorable coup over Everton at their Goodison fortress (1-0).
Tykes terrorise giants
Despite the splendid resistance shown by Havant and Waterlooville against Liverpool (5-2 defeat after leading 1-0 and then 2-1), the fourth round was relatively shock-free as a slew of Premier League clubs were drawn against each other.
Consequently, Barnsley slipped quietly through to the fifth round to take on the Reds, with most observers predicting a goal rush for Fernando Torres and and his cohorts. Amazingly, however, the unfancied Yorkshiremen ran out 2-1 winners at Anfield. Then three weeks later in the quarters, against what appeared an insurmountable hurdle in the form of Chelsea, the Tykes triumphed again, beating the holders 1-0. In the end, it took a team from their own level, Cardiff, to put a stop to Barnsley's unlikely wrecking spree.
On the other side of the English Channel, the French side Carquefou are enjoying a cup fairytale of similar proportions. This Wednesday at Nantes' Stade de la Beaujoire, this outfit from the CFA2 (fifth division) will play host to a Paris Saint-Germain side fighting for their top flight survival. Paul Le Guen's players will hardly be relaxed by the prospect of this quarter-final of the French Cup, where three Ligue 2 sides are still in with a shout, especially given the massive sensation that any upset would cause.
Indeed, it might even match the stir caused by the amateurs' 1-0 win over Olympique Marseille in the previous round. "We've managed to give all of France a good laugh," declared OM's Belgian coach Eric Gerets in the aftermath.
However, Denis Renaud's braves were not entirely new to the giant-killing game. Back in the Round of 32, they had recorded another 1-0 success over a Gueugnon side currently playing in Ligue 2. And one month later, the top flight's fourth-placed side Nancy also succumbed 2-1 to the seemingly irresistible force of the Loire-Atlantique region upstarts.
Following in Calais' footsteps
Carquefou's stellar trajectory is not dissimilar to that of Calais in 2000. In the CFA at the time, the Northerners list of scalps included Lille (then in L2), Strasbourg and Bordeaux, before they finally came unstuck against Nantes (2-1).
It Italy, relative underdogs Catania will themselves be bidding to reach the final this Wednesday, when they take on the might of Roma, with the return leg on 7 May. Serie A's 15th-placed team have managed to haul themselves into the semi-final by overcoming Triestina in the first round (0-0, 4-2 on penalties), AC Milan at the last 16 stage (2-1, 1-1) and most recently Udinese (2-3, 2-1).
If the Sicilians can rain on Totti and Co's parade, they would send shockwaves right through Italian football. That is because the Coppa Italia's format so favours the Calcio's big boys - the previous season's eight best sides don't come in until the last sixteen stage - that no team in modern history has ever come all the way through from the first round to the final.
For Borussia Dortmund, Saturday 19 April will mark their return among the German elite when they face Bayern Munich in the German Cup final at Berlin's Olympiastadion. However, they will need an inspired performance reminiscent of their halcyon days if they are to avoid a similar drubbing to the 5-0 defeat dished out by the same adversaries at the weekend.
On the trail of past glories
A big name from the 1990s (two league titles, one UEFA Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup), Dortmund have since endured their fair share of dark days.
Despite another Bundesliga success in 2002, Thomas Doll's charges have entered the new millennium firmly in the shadow of their great rivals Bayern, not to mention of Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and even Hamburg. Now, for the fourth cup final in their history, the boys from the Ruhr region will attempt to take home a trophy that has eluded them since 1989.
Lastly, after their narrow 1-0 weekend defeat at the hands of Sevilla, Getafe meet Valencia this Wednesday in the final of the Copa del Rey. Threatened by relegation despite making the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, where they suffered a heart-breaking away goals defeat to Bayern, Michael Laudrup's players have pledged to bounce back and lift the trophy. This tie also offers a mouth-watering coaching duel between two former Barcelona legends from the Johan Cruyff 'dream team' era: Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman.
Yet all of these teams will be painfully aware that, regardless of their remarkable achievements thus far, their cup exploits will be widely forgotten unless they carve their name on the trophy. Only time will tell whether Europe's underdogs will have their day in the finals themselves.