Monday, January 08, 2007

Drawn Again

There aren't many things that transport me back to my childhood more than the fact that FA have reinstated the draw for the FA Cup to its rightful place, on Monday lunchtimes. Of course, times have changed since I was a child. In the days of my youth, the FA Cup draw was treated like some sort of masonic ritual that we could peek at through a metaphorical key-hole. If you weren't lucky enough to hear it live on the radio, you'd have to wait until the evening news on the television or even wait for the following morning's papers to find who'd you'd drawn in the next round. These days, with rolling news channels, the internet and other forms of saturation coverage, the mystique has been lessened slightly, but that's not to say that it doesn't still exist. In offices the length and breadth of the country, designated football geeks will have been assigned by their peers or their bosses to check the draw and report back. The more organised ones will send a group email to everyone that cares. In others, though, hearsay will reign supreme as Chinese whispers sweep the building - "Chelsea have drawn Arsenal, Manchester United and Spurs? How did this happen?".

So, what have the Gods Of The Plastic Tubs And Multi-Coloured Ping Pong Balls granted us this time around? Well... it's not bad, as these things go. The remaining "big three" have all been drawn at home, but two of them have tricky matches, and there are at least a couple of others that at least warrant our further inspection. The two potentially tricky matches are, of course, for Arsenal and Manchester United. Arsenal take on Bolton at Ashburton Grove. Bolton's improvement this season cannot be understated, and the match also provides an opportunity for Nicolas Anelka to return to North London and show Arsene Wenger exactly what he's missing out on. Also... Bolton have beaten Arsenal this season in the Premiership, and dumped Arsenal out of last year's FA Cup. Manchester United's reward for their somewhat fortuitous win against Aston Villa is another home match, this time against Portsmouth. Now, United did brush Pompey aside in the Premiership earlier this season, but Portsmouth are brimming with confidence and, in the likes of David James, Sol Campbell and Kanu, they can hardly be said to be lacking in experienced big game players. It's also worth reminding that Harry Redknapp was in charge of West Ham United when they knocked Manchester United out at Old Trafford in 2001.

The other cup favourites have got off a little more lightly. Chelsea entertain Nottingham Forest, though Forest might fancy their chances of causing a major shock if Chelsea still have no central defenders (though this looks unlikely), especially with Kris Commons, the best attacker in the bottom two divisions, still in sparkling form. Should they get past Cardiff in their replay, Spurs will be at home to Southend or Barnsley. Southend took them to extra-time in the League Cup, but Barnsley are their more likely opponents. The last time that The Tykes went to White Hart Lane in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup was in 1981, but their opponents weren't Spurs, but their once-mighty non-league neighbours, Enfield. More of that story should they end up back there this year. Newcastle have to get past Burnley for the right to play Reading or Burnley, and there's yet another all-Premiership match at Upton Park, where West Ham United play Watford.

The large number of all-Premiership matches means that the Football League will have at least six representatives in the last sixteen. Should Wolves force their way past Oldham Athletic in their replay, they will have a home Black Country derby against West Bromwich Albion. Wolves and West Brom have a particularly intense rivalry - should they get to face each other, it will be one of the ties of the round. Other League clubs looking at the distinct possibility of a place in the last sixteen include Derby County (who I would say should see off Bristol Rovers, were it not for that Rovers knocked Derby out a couple of years ago, while Derby were still a Premiership club), Ipswich, who are likely to face Swansea City, and Crystal Palace or Preston North End, who play each other at Selhurst Park.

Well, until the replays come around next week, that's about it for the FA Cup or now. In case you're wondering about the massive Christmas Quiz, answers and results later this week (one or two of you are massive slackers and have requested a few extra days to finalise your results - which I know means spending hours and hours looking at random football grounds on Google Image Search). Tomorrow... Cardiff City - neanderthals or mis-understood?


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