It’s the last weekend in January, and this can only mean one thing. The FA Cup Fourth Round. We’re down to the last thirty-two now, and by the time that we’ve made the last sixteen, at least eight of the clubs involved won’t even be from the Premier League, half of whose clubs bit the dust at the first hurdle. It all kicks off tonight with Southend United playing Barnsley at Roots Hall, and then spreads luxuriously over the following three days. The clubs still involved range from the Big Four down to Havant & Waterlooville from the Conference South. Havant have been lapping up their time in the media limelight and it’s almost certainly too much to expect them to go to Anfield and get a result, but they have already won, relatively speaking, far more than anyone else will in this year’s tournament – they stand to make over £600,000 from their match tomorrow, which is probably enough to pay their wage bill for the next year at least. I covered Havant’s rise from the primordial gloop that is local league football on Pitch Invasion yesterday, but this isn’t the only match to be taking place this weekend, so here are a further five stand-out ties from this weekend’s matches.
Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur: After all the ranting and raving over their League Cup win against Arsenal on Tuesday night (which, of course, I was a party to), Spurs face another even bigger test against Manchester United on Sunday afternoon. I mean, it’s all very well thrashing an under-strength Arsenal team at home, but going to Old Trafford to play a full-strength team is a different matter altogether. Still, Spurs are brimming with confidence now they have the knowledge that they will be going to Wembley once this season, and are capable of getting a result there. Manchester United still lead the Premier League on goal difference from Arsenal but, apart from Newcastle’s spectacular second half collapse at Old Trafford a couple of weeks ago, they haven’t actually been playing particularly brilliantly recently. Their 2-0 win at Reading last week flattered them, and they also laboured to wins against Aston Villa and Birmingham City as well. Much of what will happen will come down to Alex Ferguson’s team selection – if he chooses to rest the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo, Spurs could well come away with a result. Otherwise, it will likely be business as usual.
Sheffield United vs Manchester City: Where to start with Bryan Robson and Sheffield United? My belief in the summer was that this was an insane appointment, and The Blades’ mid-table position in the Championship makes a mockery of their end of season complaints last year about West Ham “cheating” to stay in the Premier League (which they probably did, but that’s besides the point). They may be continuing to struggle in the league – and last weekend’s beating in the Sheffield derby match wreaked fresh humiliation upon them in that respect – but they doubtless still feel as if they’ve got a point to prove against Premier League clubs, and they’ve got a chance to do this on Monday night against Manchester City at Bramall Lane. This match is exactly the sort of Manchester City would usually lose. However, Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment has turned perceived wisdom upon its head. City are, if nothing else, highly organised, and are exceeding their supporters’ wildest dreams by still having half a chance of a Champions League place going into spring. This will be a big test of their mettle (and City will be taking it seriously – they haven’t won a major trophy since 1976), and I suspect that they will have just too much for United.
Portsmouth vs Plymouth Argyle: Considering that both of their local rivals in Devon have, in recent years, dropped out of the Football League, this is getting on for being a local derby for Plymouth Argyle, whose continuing comfort in the Championship has surprised many neutrals. They lost manger Ian Holloway to Leicester City in the autumn, but their form hasn’t been noticeably affected (their big problem was consistency before he went and it still is now), and they currently sit in eleventh place in the table. Portsmouth, somewhat ominously, have been in better form away from at home than they have at Fratton Park this season. They’ve won just three home league matches all season, and last week’s win against Derby County (who surely don’t really count as Premier League opposition) was their first since that bizarre 7-4 win against Reading at the end of September. They should really see Plymouth off with some comfort, but you’d have said the same thing about Everton before their Third Round match against Oldham Athletic.
Derby County vs Preston North End: I tipped Derby County to lose to Sheffield Wednesday in the last round and they almost did me proud, requiring a penalty shootout in the replay at Hillsborough to finally see off their lower division opposition. Still, with just seven points all season so far, only Newport Isle of White and Berkhamsted Town in the Southern League and Wivenhoe Town in the Isthmian League have a worse record than them in the whole of senior English football. For Preston North End, it’s probably fair to describe this season so far as “traumatic”. Last season, they were in the automatic promotion places in the Championship and it looked likely as if they would reach the top flight for the first time in over forty years. However, they lost in the play-offs and have been suffering a hangover ever since. They sacked manager Paul Simpson in November replacing him with Alan Irvine, but still sit in the relegation places, four points adrift of fourth from bottom Sheffield Wednesday. For all of that, though, I still can’t see Derby County beating anyone in normal time at the moment, so I still think that Preston could pull off a minor surprise here.
Peterborough United vs West Bromwich Albion: Peterborough United are one of English football’s great conundrums – a club that really thinks that it is bigger than it is but isn’t, really. They’re currently in fifth place in League Two, but their last win, an 8-2 thrashing of Accrington Stanley, demonstrated their potential. If ever there was a manager with the burden of expectation, it’s Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson, who is at least starting to look like his old man, Alex. I still don’t like West Bromwich Albion, and this (as some of you will recall) has been emphasised by a fawning hagiography about them on ITV last Sunday. They’ve lost seven of their twenty-eight league matches this season and have won just once in their last five matches. The Championship, a highly competitive league in which everyone seems capable of beating everyone else, has been a bit like that this season. Albion were very lucky to get past Charlton Athletic after a penalty shootout in the Third Round, and their defensive frailties lead me to believe that Peterborough might be good for a result here.
This weekend’s live televised FA Cup matches on the BBC are Mansfield Town vs Middlesbrough and Wigan Athletic vs Chelsea on Saturday and Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur. Also (and I will be returning to this subject next week), I highly recommend the BBC’s excellent coverage of the African Cup Of Nations on BBC3 and BBCi – proof that the BBC can still do it when they put their minds to it.
There was one other thing – I managed to delete all of my links in the course of this revamp – if yours is missing or there is one that you think should be in there, I’d be grateful if you pop it in the comments box for me, and I’ll update it as soon as possible. Ta.