The first week of January is not something the British public generally look forward to. Back to work, post Christmas blues and a persistent winter chill. It might take more than some FA Cup magic to warm you up this weekend.
The first weekend of January is, of course, FA Cup 3rd round day. Historically this is an iconic date on the football calendar. That one shot at the big time for some lower league sides, David vs Goliath, rich vs poor. Dress it up however you want, this is what the adverts will say. So why is Wolves vs Liverpool on TV? More on that later.
The competition has lost credibility in recent years. There are a few reasons for that. The main one being the prize is nothing compared to finishing say 4th or even 17th in the Premier League. The scheduling has also done the cup no favours. Third-round weekend arrives on the back of four rounds of Premier League games in 12 days. The festive period is hectic and traditionally lucrative for gate receipts. So whilst the romance remains for most sides outside of the top flight, you can expect to see some rotation from the Premier League sides.
That said, there are only two all-Premier League ties. What chance do we have of some Cupsets? Let’s take a look at what lies in store for all 20 Premier League sides this weekend.
The first thing to note is that more matches than ever have been selected for “International broadcast” which means we have more than just the two matches kicking off at 12.30pm and 5.30pm. To me, this massively damages the competition. To have a small amount of games kicking off at 3pm seems ludicrous but if people abroad really want to watch Bristol City vs Huddersfield then who am I to argue?
The games actually start on Friday night, with Tranmere of League Two hosting high flying Tottenham. This is every bit the classic FA Cup tie and it’s no surprise BT have picked it for coverage. Tranmere are going well at the moment and sit just outside the playoffs. Spurs were allegedly tired against Wolves last weekend so expect a lot of changes from Pochettino. Ignore the fact they beat Cardiff easily since then.
The most ludicrous TV selection is Man Utd vs Reading. Reading are utterly terrible having hired a seemingly terrible Portugese manager. Man Utd have already fallen foul of this and having binned him have excelled under his replacement. This will be your standard 4-0 pointless lunchtime affair and BT want shaming for picking it. Ratings smatings, this will be rubbish. At least their 5.30pm selection of Blackpool vs Arsenal has a bit more of a classic feel to it. It’ll be Unai Emery’s first taste of the FA Cup and probably Blackpool in general. The Seasiders are at war with their owner and I’m curious to see what’ll happen with the attendance for this one. They’re 10th in League One but if the fans aren’t on board, I’ll be amazed if they even threaten an upset here.
We stay with BT for their next selection and it’s the ultimate in FA Cup ties. A non-league side in Woking vs Premier League Watford. Gracia’s side are in the glut of clubs chasing 7th place and Woking will be glad of the financial rewards. I say this every year but the clubs 7th – 13th should be going all guns blazing at the FA Cup. They are in no danger of going down and shouldn’t even chance going out at the hands of a lower ranked side. I suppose from a squad point of view if your players (first choice or not) can’t beat a non-league side then what is their use? This game is at 2pm on Sunday.
BBC join the party with the 4.30pm choice of Newport County vs Leicester City. I’m sure Leicester would have been chosen regardless of Mr Lineker but here we are. Newport are 12th in League Two whilst Leicester are in a similar boat to Watford. With all that has gone on there this season, it would be a lovely story for them to win the cup. They should have enough to make round 4 here even if Newport took Tottenham to a draw last season.
Monday night then sees the Beeb broadcast Wolves vs Liverpool. Two top half Premier League sides who met in the league about two weeks ago. It was a comfortable away win that night and you’d expect the same here, changes or not. You can’t win the FA Cup in round 3 but you can certainly lose it. Klopp has his eyes on the league and I don’t think it would be the worst thing for them to bow out.
Outside of the TV games, there are three Premier League sides who look most at risk. All three are relegation candidates and if survival takes precedence, you can expect weaker sides this weekend.
Firstly, Southampton’s trip to Derby looks fraught with danger. Frank Lampard knows the importance of the FA Cup and are going well in the Championship. Derby will fancy their chances and even if Southampton have improved under their new manager, how much will they really want this?
Neil Warnock will be his usual bullish self and send out a second string team to face Gillingham at Priestfield. He is doing an incredible job at trying to keep Cardiff up and I don’t think he could care less about how far his side go in the cup. He also doesn’t care what you think. Gillingham might be in League One but if Warnock doesn’t play his full strength team I think they’ll win.
Huddersfield would have to score goals to get past Bristol City which immediately puts them in trouble. The Terriers are bottom of the Premier League and I think David Wagner would rather focus on that. There’s no shame in losing to Bristol City, who showed their qualities in the League Cup semi-final run last year.
Best of the rest
There’s only one other all-Premier League tie and it’s Bournemouth vs Brighton. The table would suggest there is very little between these sides but both are well clear of danger. Bournemouth’s squad is stretched by injury at the moment whereas Brighton seem to have rotated quite well recently. For that reason, I’d back Brighton to get it done even if they aren’t as good away from home.
Everton vs Lincoln and Fulham vs Oldham will see Premier League sides host League Two sides. Lincoln had a fantastic run two years ago and even if they are top of the table, I can’t see them winning at Goodison Park. Everton haven’t had the best of runs though so never say never. The same can be said of Fulham but with Oldham 10th in League Two, there is a large gap to bridge. Crystal Palace vs Grimsby also falls into this category and we might see Palace play without Zaha and get an answer to the eternal question. Can Alexander Sorloth score a goal?
Burnley host League One Barnsley. This has been moved to 12.30pm for International broadcast. If you find yourself watching this live, please write to me and tell me why.
The remaining ties involving Premier League clubs see them welcome Championship sides. Chelsea vs Nottingham Forest is the highest profile. Obviously Chelsea will be favourites to win that, even if they rest a few. Aitor Karanka is Nottingham Forest manager these days and he enjoyed a cup run a few years ago when managing Middlesbrough. That included a win at Manchester City, so he does at least have form.
Rotherham drew the short straw of having to go to Man City. I’m sure the Millers will have a nice day out. West Ham had a pretty good December and will be heavy favourites to oust Birmingham. Pellegrini didn’t win the FA Cup with Man City but he did win the League Cup twice. West Ham are another who are really well placed to have a cup run. If they can get into the business end and have the likes of Felipe Anderson and Marko Arnautovic firing then who knows?
The final tie is Newcastle vs Blackburn Rovers. Tony Mowbray is doing a reasonable job at Blackburn though they had lost three in a row until the New Year’s Day win over West Brom. Newcastle are obviously struggling for goals and points and I don’t think Rafa Benitez will play a particularly strong side. You wouldn’t be shocked if there was an upset here.
That’s all the Premier League sides taken care of. There will be egg on my face if a team outside of the top flight wins the cup but I’m fairly confident I won’t have to worry about that. See you for the 4th Round preview – enjoy the games!