Here we are once again in the first week of the new year, a very appropriate time for football’s annual shot at redemption: The FA Cup, to begin in earnest with its third round.
These are dark days for football. Greed is a necessity for success; rampant violence, criminality and generally vulgar behaviour amongst players are tolerated by the biggest clubs; the rich/poor gap is wider than ever, and trophy winning is reserved for a priveleged few. In addition, satellite TV continues to saturate the airwaves with an insane number of matches, and erode the atmosphere at grounds by bamboozling the already over-fed supporters with its bizarre range of kick-off times.
It’s all a far cry from the days that this particular weekend in the football calendar always reminds us of. Yet it is surely the FA Cup that provides the rest of the footballing nation with its one chance to get their own back; to redress the balance; to turn back the clock and yet dream of a brighter future, even if only for a day.
This is of course because anything’s possible when the Premiership megacelebs and the part-time cloggers get thrown into the mix together. In truth, giant-killings, which in the past were almost inevitable, are now very few and far between, due to the increased professionalism of the bigger clubs (at least on the pitch). But there’s always a chance, and my goodness how football needs someone to prove that to us this weekend.
Nowadays, that chance tends to present itself as the big clubs increasingly treat the early rounds of the cup as an annoyance, and large amounts of first-teamers get dropped. Whether you call it arrogance, or a panicked desire to wrap players in cotton-wool with that we-dare-not-miss-out-on-all-that-cash Champions League fixture on the horizon, it still provides David with the chance of a lifetime to slay Goliath.
Some may argue that it rather takes the shine off a giant-killing when the famous team appears to have announced with its team selection that it doesn’t care. I disagree. Firstly, you can still bet your life that the favourites don’t want to lose, and secondly it makes no difference to how good the score sounds in the classified check.
Manchester United‘s adoption of this risky strategy has seen them involved in a couple of spectacular near-misses in recent years. They could surely have fielded a 5th team that could beat Exeter City in 2005, and yet back to Devon they all went after a 0-0 draw. Having failed to learn from that mistake, United promptly made it again 12 months later at Burton Albion, where they once more escaped humiliation in a replay.
Another such near miss brings us nicely onto this years fixtures. Two years ago, when Luton Town were 3-1 up and playing Liverpool off the park, live on the BBC, the classic cup upset appeared to be on the cards. Liverpool spoiled everyone’s fun by storming back to win the game 5-3. The two clubs meet again on Sunday, with Luton now in a far worse position; threatened with relegation to League Two, and finances in a mess. Yet their impressive home record this season demands respect, and with Liverpool‘s manager appearing to think that the aim of his job is to get his best players on the pitch as rarely as possible, who knows what set of misfits The Hatters might come up against?
Let’s look at where else we can pin our hopes for a dose of footballing equality:
The other three members of football’s royal family all have fascinating draws. It says a lot about the state of football today that if Aston Villa, currently plumbing the depths of 7th in the Premiership, were to turn Manchester United over at home, it would be regarded as a major giant-killing. It would probably come as an almighty shock to Villa fans as well, given their team’s abysmal recent record against the champions. Nevertheless, it’s by far the best chance we have of seeing one of the big four sent packing early.
You can bet that Burnley is one of the last places Arsenal would fancy spending a sunday afternoon. Yet however intimidating an atmosphere the Turf Moor fans create, it’s difficult to see the Premiership leaders slipping up here. The new Burnley manager Owen Coyle once famously helped a second division Bolton dump Arsenal out in a replay at Highbury, but is yet to get his side going in the short time he’s been in charge, despite being dubbed ‘the new Bill Shankly’ by his chairman.
No game this weekend quite encapsulates football’s plight like Chelsea v QPR. This one is fascinating for all the wrong reasons, as it brings together football’s two richest clubs. Chelsea, the cup holders, have earned their status thanks entirely to the riches of Roman Abramovich. Poor west London relations QPR are now making an attempt to catch up with the Joneses; not content with the billions of Formula 1’s hierarchy, Rangers have recently brought on board an Asian businessman with even deeper pockets. They are however yet to spend any of this loot, meaning their chances of winning this local derby are still extremely remote, but their surging league form of late suggests the players may be playing with a greater incentive (I wonder what that could be?). Couple this with Chelsea‘s injury crisis, and maybe it’s not so clearcut.
The remaining non-league sides Chasetown and Havant & Waterlooville have seemingly impossible tasks against in-form welsh outfits Cardiff and Swansea respectively. In fact you could say they Havant a prayer. Sorry.
Realistically, we will probably have to settle for slightly smaller potatoes, in the shape of mid-table Premiership sides slipping up. Here are the third round fixtures I think have the best chance of producing a surprise result:
Bristol City v Middlesbrough – This is a repeat of a fourth round tie from last season, when Boro needed penalties to see off the league one version of City after twice narrowly escaping with a 2-2 draw. Since then, City have been promoted and are finding the Championship a breeze, where as beleaguered Boro edge nearer to the Premiership trap-door. Southgate is a sitting duck.
Huddersfield v Birmingham – Huddersfield are yet again failing to meet expectations in League One, languishing in mid-table. Which leaves them in a perfect position to put all their energies into this. With no promotion on the horizon, The Terriers’ large following, in their excellent stadium, will be desperate to make the most of the big occasion. Alex McLeish‘s side, with a must-win relegation battle in the league to fight, will not appreciate this distraction.
Ipswich v Portsmouth – A tie in which something has to give. Ipswich unbeatable at home, Pompey saving all their best for the road. If it goes to a replay, we’ll be no nearer sorting it out, given Harry Redknapp‘s side inability to find the net at home, and the Tractor Boys still searching for a first away win. The Premiership quality should be the difference, but anything can happen here.
Stoke v Newcastle – This is the ‘you-wouldn’t-want-to-be-in-his-shoes’ game of the weekend. Sam Allardyce needs this game at the moment like he needs, say, his best central midfielder to get banged up for a fortnight. Surely it’s too soon for Joey the jailbird to make an appearance here – if he does he will be a brave man, because the Britannia Stadium, both its players and spectators, will be merciless. If Newcastle escape with a draw they’ll be absolutely delighted.