By this stage of the English football season, there’s always plenty to reflect upon, discuss and look forward to. Title contenders, relegation battles and intense banter between rival fans are the main ingredients, but as always, early January brings a change of focus with the third round of the FA Cup. It’s old news that the competition isn’t what it was and much of the mystique has eroded, but it’s still the most famous club competition of its type in the world.
On the back of a busy Christmas and New Year programme, the elite clubs entering at this stage often look to rest and rotate, roll the dice with squad members and hope they advance; more often than not, they should, given their depth. Spurs and Chelsea, Man City and Burton Albion, also have their Carabao Cup semi-final first legs next week, and with Wembley potentially just 180 mins away, who would blame them for fielding full reserve teams this weekend (n.b. Burton were knocked out in the FA Cup first round and play Rochdale in a League One encounter this weekend, with Burton sitting mid-division).
Sky Sport have a new, exclusive agreement this season to show the FA Cup and this weekend sees them provide nine games (eight of them live). Following the thrashing handed out by Spurs at Tranmere this morning, this is what we have left in store:
Sun 1.30am Man Utd v Reading (Sky Sport 3)
What a difference a fortnight makes. Before Jose Mourinho was sacked I might have had this down as a possible upset, even at home, such was the disarray the club was in. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken over, United are four from four, only the second time (after Sir Matt Busby in 1946) that a Red Devils manager has achieved that in his first four league outings. Reading are now second from bottom in the Championship, five points from safety and their last game on New Year’s Day saw them lose 4-1 at home to Swansea. This is only going one way.
Prediction: Man Utd 5-1 Reading
Sun 1.30am West Ham v Birmingham (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
Despite spending the best part of £100 million last summer, Manuel Pellegrini’s Hammers had a shocking start to the season, losing their first four games before winning away to Everton in September. Since then they’ve found mid table respectability, but this is a chance for the manager to rest some troops; they took four points from a possible twelve over the festive period. Birmingham sit eighth in the Championship, four points outside the playoffs. They’ve stuttered a bit recently with draws at home to Brentford and away to Sheffield Wednesday but they are capable of going away, with a strong travelling support behind them, scoring goals and getting a result this weekend.
Prediction: West Ham 1-2 Birmingham
Sun 4.00am Chelsea v Nottingham Forest (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
Like Birmingham, Forest are on the edge of the Championship playoffs (seventh, level on points with Birmingham). If you’ve been watching ‘Sunderland ’til I Die’ recently on Netflix, you’ll be familiar with Lewis Grabban; he’s Forest’s top scorer in the league this season with 14. They beat table topping Leeds at home on New Year’s Day (albeit Leeds had a player sent off late in the first half) so they will have some confidence travelling to Stamford Bridge. I’m expecting the defending champions Chelsea to make wholesale changes, given they are occupying the final Champions League spot at present, and Forest to make life difficult for them.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 Nottingham Forest
Sun 6.30am Blackpool v Arsenal (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
Despite Blackpool being in League One, these sides met earlier this season, with Arsenal victorious 2-1 at the Emirates in their Carabao Cup fourth round tie. Although Bloomfield Road will be a less welcoming environment for the Gunners, Unai Emery’s team bounced backed from their thrashing at the hands of Liverpool last weekend, with a 4-1 win against Fulham on New Year’s Day and should be too strong for the Tangerines who are currently tenth in their division, albeit with the fifth best defensive record in that league.
Prediction: Blackpool 0-2 Arsenal
Sun 8.30am Everton v Lincoln City (Sky Sport Pop-Up/Delayed Coverage)
Lincoln are four points clear at the top of League Two and if the Imps were at home, they might make life difficult for Everton, but it’ll be a different proposition at Goodison Park. Everton had a tough run over Christmas, with three points from twelve and a nasty 6-2 defeat to Spurs at home, so they will want to get back on track with a convincing win.
Prediction: Everton 3-0 Lincoln City
Mon 3.00am Man City v Rotherham Utd (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
Pretty straightforward this one. Man City, whatever team they put out at home, will have too much strength for Rotherham who are just one place above the relegation places in the Championship.
Prediction: Man City 4-0 Rotherham Utd
Mon 5.30am Newport County v Leicester City (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
Giant killing acts almost always occur when the big boys are away from home. Newport’s Rodney Parade in South Wales holds just under eight thousand when the fans take a deep breath. The home supporters will try and make themselves sound like eighty thousand and Leicester will need to be focused, ride out the passion and take the crowd out of it. They might be mid-table in League Two, but to say they’ll be up for this will be the understatement of the season. Will Leicester play it safe with (close to) their strongest team, or will they let their squad try and handle the challenge? I think they’ll take a risk and come unstuck, with Newport forcing a replay.
Prediction: Newport County 1-1 Leicester City
Mon 8.45am Wolves v Liverpool (Sky Sport Pop-Up)
To close the third round, the EPL leaders travel to the Midlands in a repeat of their league encounter at Molineux on 21st December, which Liverpool won 2-0. I expect Klopp to rotate his squad, but not enough to put them in danger of slipping up. I think the Reds will match that recent scoreline and keep marching on.
Prediction: Wolves 0-2 Liverpool
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