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Anyone for a Cupset?

It’s the time of year again. Niall Kelly runs the rule over this weekend’s FA Cup third round clashes.

FOR FOOTBALL FANS, early January can mean only one thing – the magical weekend of the FA Cup third round.

As the minnows of English football’s prepare to take their place alongside the Premier League big boys, we have a look ahead to five games worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

Arsenal vs. Leeds United (today, 12:45, Live on ITV / Setanta Ireland)

Cupset Probability: **

The gods of the FA Cup draw appear to really have it in for Leeds. Having fulfilled their giantkilling responsibilities with a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford last season, a trip to the Emirates is this year’s prize.

They appear to be catching Arsenal at a particularly bad time. The Gunners have put their early-season inconsistency behind them as they hit a rich vein of form over the Christmas period and will be hoping to sustain their league momentum as they continue their search for a  first domestic trophy since 2005

For their part, newly-promoted Leeds’ currently find themselves hovering in the Championship playoff places. Since the departure of the star of last year’s cup run, Jermaine Beckford, to Everton, Argentine striker Luciano Becchio has provided their main threat, hitting thirteen goals already this season. If he is on form at lunchtime tomorrow, anything is possible.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Queens Park Rangers (today, 15:00)

Cupset Probability: **

Fresh off the back of their 3-1 humiliation of Liverpool on Wednesday night, Blackburn face a somewhat more difficult task when they welcome Championship leaders QPR to Ewood Park tomorrow afternoon.

The injury problems which caused  selection headaches for manager Steve Kean in midweek have not gone away and he will once again look to Benjani to lead the line if Jason Roberts fails to recover from injury.

The severity of the test posed by QPR will hinge on the strength of the side fielded by Neil Warnock. His focus on securing an automatic promotion berth led to him fielding a weakened side in QPR’s Carling Cup tie against Port Vale, a match which they subsequently lost 3-1. If Warnock chooses to do likewise at Ewood tomorrow, Blackburn will have a slightly easier afternoon than might otherwise be the case.

Stoke City  vs. Cardiff City (today, 15:00)

Cupset Possibility: ****

Currently lying second in the Championship, Dave Jones’ Cardiff City travel to the Brittania in the middle of a poor run of form, only managing to secure a meagre seven points from their last eight fixtures.

Stoke on the other hand find themselves in the Premiership’s top half despite some mixed results of their own. While Stoke boss Tony Pulis would surely prioritise a respectable final league position over the glory of a speculative cup run, he would be foolish to name a vastly weakened team against an opponent who deserve respect.

For if there’s one thing that the Bluebirds do boast, it’s a strike force that can get the job done. Jay Bothroyd has been in impressive form in the Championship with thirteen goals in seventeen appearances, no doubt assisted by the extensive Premier League experience of Michael Chopra and Craig Bellamy.

A win for the Bluebirds at the Brittania will be seen as a strong statement as they attempt to bolster their promotion credentials. Don’t be surprised to see them progress.

Manchester United vs. Liverpool (tomorrow, 13:30, Live on ITV / Setanta Ireland)

Cupset Possibility: ***

Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon is certainly the pick of this year’s third round fixtures. Particularly if you’re a United fan. Or a Liverpool-supporting masochist.

If this one follows the form book, it should be a rather straightforward win for United who have hit their familiar mid-season rhythm of grinding out result after result on their march towards another domestic crown.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have experienced a  poor run of form even by the standards of the terrible season they are having. Three defeats in their last four have left Roy Hodgson’s men just four points clear of the relegation zone, mulling over the increasingly real prospect of being drawn into a dogfight for survival.

Strangely enough, a Liverpool win at Old Trafford on Sunday would be exactly in keeping with the tone of their unpredictably chaotic season to date, and the away team are priced at a not-unreasonable 9/2 by the bookies. Nonetheless, it would be a brave man who makes any attempt to discern a pattern in the present Anfield disarray, not to mention place money on it.

Chelsea vs. Ipswich Town (Sunday, 15:00)

Cupset Possibility: *

Under normal circumstances, one might expect Chelsea to field a somewhat weakened side against a struggling Championship outfit. Carlo Ancelotti will be the first to tell you, however, that these are not normal circumstances.

Chelsea’s desperation to get back to winning ways was glaringly evident in their premature celebrations against Aston Villa last weekend, a desperation which has  since been compounded by a shock defeat to Wolves in midweek.

If the Blues can be deemed lucky in any sense, it is that they are facing Ipswich in the midst of managerial change. Keano’s sudden departure following a run of seven defeats in nine games means that by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around, caretaker manager Ian McParland will have had just over forty-eight hours to prepare his charges for battle at the Bridge.

The repercussions of a cup exit to lower-league opposition at the first hurdle would be disastrous for both squad morale and for Ancelotti’s fragile tenure. Owner, manager and players cannot but be aware of this and will surely respond accordingly.