Another FA Cup Third Round has come around, and again the biggest clubs in the land have to get down and dirty against teams that they don’t usually have to come up against. With the Premier League looking like it will go to the wire again this season, more managers will be tempted to take their chances and field weakened sides this weekend. The wisdom of this is, of course questionable. From a practical point of view, Reading’s experience of last season demonstrated that picking half a first team in the Third Round and getting knocked out as quickly as possible doesn’t make a jot of difference if your form is in free-fall. Still, let’s take a moment to enjoy (then) Reading striker Dave Kitson’s comment on the last subject from last January:
We are not going to win the FA Cup and I do not care less about it, to be honest.
Who says that romance is dead, eh? Just as a quick coda to Kitson’s Premier League odyssey with Reading last season, let’s just bring ourselves up to date with how that all turned out. Reading were relegated at the end of the season, and Dave Kitson was transferred to Stoke City at the end of last season. So far, he has failed to score this season in the Premier League. Quite aside from any practical considerations (and we’ve done this before, so I’ll keep it brief this time), there are more philosophical considerations to take into account when considering this sort of attitude. It is a sad comment on the state of English football that everyone – players, managers, even supporters – care more about clinging on in the Premier League than they do about winning the world’s oldest football competition.
This year’s Third Round draw looked, on the surface, to be a fairly mediocre one, and the Big Four seem unlikely to have too many difficulties getting through. Manchester United travel to the St Marys Stadium to play possibly the worst Southampton team in living memory, Chelsea are at home against League One Southend United and Arsenal play Championship mediocrities Plymouth Argyle, and all three should come through these matches. Liverpool have a slightly tougher match, away to Preston North End, but they have become somewhat tougher to beat this season than they have been in previous years and are still likely to get through. To pick out the possible surprises, you have to look slightly further down the Premier League food chain. Here are five that could cause an upset:
1. West Ham United vs Barnsley: West Ham United’s latest round of uncertaincies couldn’t have come at a better time than now for Barnsley. The Tykes, who knocked out Liverpool and Chelsea last season, travel to East London with rumours starting to circulate that West Ham’s situation is more desperate than some had earlier suspected. Barnsley only narrowly avoided relegation at the end of last season, but they don’t seem to be in any immediate danger of a similar struggle this season and have taken seven points from their last three matches in the Championship. This is precisely the match that Gianfranco Zola didn’t want this weekend.
2. Portsmouth vs Bristol City: The holders go into today’s match in something of a state of crisis. We have seen practically nothing in Tony Adams’ time in charge at Fratton Park to inspire any confidence in his ability as a manager, and he is likely to be missing five or six of his most senior players. Bristol City were edged out in the play-offs last season and have been somewhat infuriating in the Championship, though they still have an outside chance of making the play-offs. They still seem to have enough about them, however, to be able to curtail Portsmouth’s grip on the trophy.
3. Coventry City vs Kidderminster Harriers: Like most clubs that have moved to a soulless, edge-of-town cowshed, Coventry have found that they are more likely to be faced by a sea of empty seats then increased crowds. They have been unable to find any consistency in the league this season, but one suspects that they are more likely to get sucked into a relegation struggle than they would be to challenge for a promotion place. Kidderminster Harriers, by contrast, have giant-killing form in this competition (just ask Birmingham City and Preston North End, both victims of theirs in 1994) and are having a good season, in fourth place in the Blue Square Premier.
4. Hartlepool United vs Stoke City: Whisper this, but Stoke City are having a pretty good go at staying up in the Premier League. The twenty points that they have amassed so far is about four times what most people thought that they would have by this point in the season. They have, however, gone seven matches without a win, and this run included a home defeat by Derby County in the League Cup. Hartlepool are mid-table in League One, but a bracing trip to the north-east coast has the feel of being an uncomfortable trip for a club that is missing many key players through injury and suspension and may have other, more pressing priorities.
5. West Bromwich Albion vs Peterborough United: The feel-good factor which accompanied West Brom’s promotion back into the Premier League has all but evaporated, and Albion have looked like near certainties to go straight back down this season. They beat an out-of-sorts Tottenham team in their last match but this was their first win in thirteen matches, going back to the start of October. Peterborough have possibly the best attacking options in the bottom two divisions in Aaron McLean, Craig Mackail-Smith and George Boyd, and could frighten the life of a home defence that has occasionally looked very porous so far this season.
As you will already be aware, one match has already been played in this year’s Third Round – Tottenham Hotspur beat Wigan Athletic 3-1 at White Hart Lane last night.
This weekend’s televised FA Cup matches are as follows: Preston North End vs Liverpool (ITV1, Saturday 17.25), Gillingham vs Aston Villa (ITV1, Sunday 13.30), Southampton vs Manchester United (Setanta Sports, Sunday 16.00), Blyth Spartans vs Blackburn Rovers (Setanta Sports, Monday 20.00). As for me, I’ll be (weather permitting) at the Conference South match between Bognor Regis Town and AFC Wimbledon. Expect a full write-up later this weekend.