FA Cup begins the new year in style
You know that a new year has begun in earnest when the FA Cup third round fixtures come to be played on the first weekend of January. After two preliminary rounds, four qualifying rounds and the first two rounds proper of the competition, the FA Cup for 2009-10 has reached the stage where excitement levels reach fever pitch as the Premier League clubs fight it out among lower league and non-league clubs alike. The dream of lifting the most famous piece of knockout football silverware in world football at Wembley Stadium in May still has fans and players buzzing with every new competition, this despite the fact that some top-flight managers refuse to play strong teams for the early rounds. In this day and age where “fourth is the new first” the Premier League and its mountains of wealth seem to be more important than winning a trophy for today’s modern coaches. However the FA Cup is still a trophy whose history and tradition will ensure that it remains an important part of the football calendar. “Stoppage Time” previews the third round of matches played from January 2-3:
Usually the first thing that happens after the draw for the third round is made is to see where there are any potential ‘banana skins’ where a lower league club could upset one of the big boys. This round has certainly got a few of those to look forward to. Liverpool, whose troubles have been well documented all season, go into an away tie against Reading FC from the Championship (English football’s second tier) having finally won two matches in a row in the Premier League for the first time since September. Reading, on the other hand, have recently lost their manager and haven’t won in five matches. If Liverpool slipped up here then it would be a disaster for the club as their chances of domestic silverware realistically lie in this competition. Their local rivals Everton FC, who lost in last season’s final to Chelsea 2-1, will be hoping to avoid what would be a huge upset as they play against a Carlisle United side who will have 6,000 fans at Goodison Park for the game. Carlisle will be hoping to emulate Oldham Athletic’s achievements in 2007-08 when the Coca Cola League One (i.e. third tier) club went to Everton and came away with a win. Other ties where Premier League clubs play against lower league opponents are Tottenham Hotspur’s home game against Peterborough United, Roberto Mancini’s rejuvenated Manchester City are away at Gordon Strachan’s Middlesbrough, Stoke City play York City from Blue Square Premier League (i.e. fifth tier), a similar upset could await Sunderland if they lose at home to Barrow FC, who are also in the Blue Square Premier. A tough encounter could be on the cards for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City side, who lie eighth in the Premier League, taking on Nottingham Forest who currently lie third in the Championship. Burnley will be hoping to put a bad spell of league form behind them with a win away at MK Dons and Portsmouth, who have failed to even pay their players for the last three months, will want to a good cup run to keep players’ spirits high by beating 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry City at Fratton Park. Bolton Wanderers, who sacked their coach Gary Megson earlier this week, have a home tie against League Two strugglers Lincoln City whilst Roy Hodgson’s Fulham will hope to put the disappointment of defeat in last week’s West London derby to Chelsea behind them with a home win against Swindon Town. Two all-Premier League ties to be played on Saturday are seven times winners Aston Villa at home to Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic against Hull City. Also Newcastle United fans must make the long trip from their north east home to south west outfit Plymouth Argyle. There are twelve other ties on Saturday involving clubs from the lower divisions playing against each other for a place in the fourth round.
There are half a dozen fixtures on Sunday that will finish off the third round action. The tie of the round is the eagerly awaited clash between old foes Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford. Since Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League five seasons ago the Yorkshire outfit have struggled for the most part in League One but they look like finally getting back into English football’s second tier this season. Leeds will be hoping to beat their arch-rivals in Manchester for the first time since 1981. However the Red Devils will hope to put Leeds cup dreams to bed with a convincing win in front of a sell-out 76,000 crowd, as many as 9,000 of whom will be following Leeds. The only all-Premier League tie on Sunday is West Ham United’s welcome to Upton Park of London rivals Arsenal who will hope that they can add to coach Arsene Wenger’s tally of four FA Cups this season. FA Cup holders Chelsea FC will start the defence of the trophy against Watford FC who the Blues have beaten when winning the cup in 1970 as well as last season. In the remaining ties Tranmere Rovers from League One welcome Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers (a game you can read about in our new section “Away Days” starting on Monday, January 4th), an all-Championship tie between Sheffield United and Queen’s Park Rangers and Notts County, under the directorship of former England coach Sven Goren Eriksson, play against non-league Forest Green Rovers.