Thursday, January 04, 2007

Number 14 Will Play...

Less than forty-eight hours to go now, and last night we took a little stroll down memory lane to take a look at some of the great upsets that the FA Cup Third Round has provided us down the years. Only the constraints of time prevented me from writing another couple of thousand words on the subject, but it's time to move onto this year's competition.

It has to be said that we were a little spoilt with last year's third round draw. Luton vs Liverpool, Leicester vs Spurs, Fulham vs Leyton Orient and the rest was a fantastic draw, and the reward was one of the best Third Rounds in living memory. This year's draw has thrown up, on paper, fewer interesting ties, but I'm inclined to think that this means only that picking out where the surprises will come from is merely a little more difficult than it would otherwise be - but that's not to say that they won't happen. Three matches stand out as having the potential to upset the "bigger" clubs involved, and the good news is that two of them will be shown live on the television.

First up is the BBC's first live match of the weekend - Tamworth vs Norwich City. Much has been made of the value of getting to the Third Round to lower division clubs, and Tamworth stand to make over £300,000 from simply playing against Norwich, but a victory on Saturday lunchtime could be worth three or four times that amount to them. Norwich are a club in limbo at present. Relegated from the Premiership two years ago, they struggled to gain any momentum last season and, under the stewardship of Peter Grant (sadly not the infamous and now deceased Led Zeppelin manager), they have failed to show much imagination this season, either. They are currently seventeenth on the Championship, and have won just one of their last seven matches. The vast majority of their players won't have been to somewhere like The Lamb Ground before, and one wonders what they'll think of such a ground, with every single shout from the crowd clearly audible to them. In their defence, Tamworth are having a poor season. They're one place off the bottom of the Nationwide Conference, and are one of the very few teams that the usually very generous St Albans City defence has kept a clean sheet against this season. However, the promise of a big match, the players finding themselves in the shop window of a live match on national, terrestrial television... you shouldn't think for a minute that they won't raise their game. The old adage that "it's eleven versus eleven" could turn out to have some resonance to it here.

Second up, it's Birmingham City vs Newcastle United at St Andrews. Although they lost at Ipswich on New Year's Day, Birmingham are in a rare old run of form and, and remain six points clear of third place and the play-offs. After considerable criticism at the start of the season, manager Steve Bruce has organised his team excellently, and drilled them into an extremely effective unit. Newcastle, on the other hand, have massive problems - in spite of having held Manchester United to a draw on the same day. They currently have thirteen players out injured, including all of their central defenders. Their two centre-backs against United had a combined age of just thirty-nine. St Andrews may have been converted from an old-style football ground into a modern arena over the last ten years or so, but the atmosphere there would still rank amongst the most intimidating in the top two divisions and this could prove to be very difficult for Newcastle's youngsters.

Thirdly, on Sunday, it's Wales against England at Ninian Park as Cardiff City play Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs are comfortably placed in the Premiership, but their away form has been shocking so far. If they fail to lift themselves for the sanitised stadia of the Premiership, then heaven only knows what they will make of the considerably more rustic Ninian Park. Last season, they went out of both domestic cups to lower division teams - Leicester in the FA Cup and Grimsby Town in the Carling Cup. This season, their cup form has been better - they're in the next round of the UEFA Cup and have made the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, but this is only telling part of the story. In Europe, the opposition that they have faced has been mediocre, and in the Carling Cup they have been taken to extra-time at home by both Port Vale and Southend United. Cardiff, as I have reported on here before, are in trouble. Big trouble. They've reported a debt of £30m, and there is talk that they may have to enter into administration. Their league form has collapsed, and they've fallen from the top of the Championship to eighth place. They could fall further yet. Having said that, though, Ninian Park is a fearsome place to have to visit, and Cardiff's players and supporters both raise their game for the big clubs. League form is only partially an indicator of what could happen. It's a tricky tie for them.

Elsewhere, can Macclesfield Town do anything at Chelsea? Well, Chelsea have got no central defenders left, and Macclesfield's revival under Paul Ince has been documented on here before, but... much as we'll all be Silkmen (that's Macclesfield's nick-name, in case you were wondering) fans for the day, I can't quite see it, myself. Also, Bolton will hardly be looking to visiting Doncaster Rovers, Manchester City have a tricky visiting a (relatively) resurgent Sheffield Wednesday, and Nottingham Forest, if they can shake off the hangover from their New Year's Day thrashing at Oldham Athletic, could even squeeze through against Charlton Athletic. Also, of course, one of Liverpool or Arsenal will be out at the first hurdle, though only because they're playing each other. Still, it opens up a semi-final slot for someone else.

One final thing - if you're entering The Fabulous New Year's Eve Competition, you've got a day left to send your answers in. I'll be sticking the answers up on here at some point over the weekend.


Spangly Princess said...

the excitement and importance of the FA Cup is one of the best things about english football, and one of the few things I really miss being over in Italy. Here the cup is at best a consolation prize (usually for Inter) and is generally regarded as an irrelevance by fans and clubs alike. I miss the genuine excitement that the FA cup brings every year... enjoy!

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