Their priority was — and no doubt still is — sealing a return to the lucrative Premier League.
But for second-tier clubs Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough, this season has taken an unlikely detour courtesy of improbable runs in the FA Cup that have helped the famous competition regain some of its old luster.
Not to mention giving the teams a taste of what life could be like back in England’s top division.
Forest has eliminated Arsenal and defending champion Leicester.
Middlesbrough has perhaps surpassed that, ousting Manchester United then Tottenham.
That’s four of England’s leading seven teams of recent years humbled by opponents who might have started out regarding the FA Cup as something of a distraction to their quest for promotion.
Both Forest and Middlesbrough are one win away from a trip to Wembley Stadium for next month’s semifinals. To get there, they’ll need to cause their biggest shock yet.
Forest was given the toughest quarterfinal task, at home on Sunday to Liverpool — the form team in England and without a loss in any domestic competition in 2022.
It doesn’t come much easier for Middlesbrough, which hosts Chelsea on Saturday. Despite the sanctions placed on Russian owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea seems unaffected on the field and it is still the European champion.
The visiting teams will start their games as favorites but should not expect easy rides.
There hasn’t been this much optimism around Forest since the team from central England was last in the Premier League, in 1999.
A two-time European champion, under the late managerial great Brian Clough in 1979 and 1980, Forest fell on such hard times that the club even plunged to the third tier from 2006-08.
It hasn’t been in the Championship playoffs since 2011 but looks to be on the way back to what some regard as its rightful place in the top flight following the appointment of Steve Cooper seven games into this season.
For a club that has recently been the byword for chaos, Forest has been stabilized by Cooper and lost just one of its last 14 games. That includes a 1-0 win over Arsenal in the third round and a 4-1 thrashing of Leicester in the fourth round.
“It really feels as if the stardust and magic is back,” former Forest and Liverpool striker Stan Collymore said after the Leicester game.
Forest will be contesting its first FA Cup quarterfinal match since 1996 and welcomes a Liverpool team that has won its last nine games in the Premier League and moved to within a point of leader Manchester City.
“Momentum is the most fragile flower on the planet,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said ahead of the trip to the City Ground. “If someone walks on it, then you have to work to get the momentum back and just get through it.”
Middlesbrough has been in the Premier League more recently than Forest — in the 2016-17 season — after an 11-year stay in the top flight was ended with relegation in 2009.
Now managed by Chris Wilder, who coached Sheffield United for two years in the Premier League (2019-21) and somehow got the team close to European qualification, Boro — as it is fondly known — is one place off the playoff spots in the Championship with two months left of the season. Forest is a further place back in eighth.
If the northeast team rode its luck before eliminating Man United in a penalty shootout at Old Trafford in the fourth round, Middlesbrough dominated Tottenham for large spells of a 1-0 win after extra time in the fifth round.
While Boro’s league form has been patchy, losing three of its last seven games, the team will take heart from the turmoil Chelsea finds itself in regarding the economic sanctions against Abramovich. That will limit the number of Chelsea fans at the Riverside to about 700, with the visitors having to return the rest of its allocation of 4,500.
Chelsea’s request to play the game without a crowd — to, in the club’s words, protect the “sporting integrity” of the competition — was given short shrift by Middlesbrough. If Boro’s performance is as punchy as its response, Chelsea is up for a tough fight on Saturday.
“Given the reasons for these sanctions,” Middlesbrough said, “for Chelsea to seek to invoke sporting ‘integrity’ as a reason for the game being played behind closed doors is ironic in the extreme.”
Completing the quarterfinal lineup are two all-Premier League matchups, with Manchester City visiting Southampton and Crystal Palace hosting Everton. Both games are on Sunday.
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