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It's a big weekend of FA Cup football and there are plenty of potential upsets - 5 talking points

The road to Wembley starts here for the Premier League clubs.

THE FIRST WEEKEND in January sees the Premier League and Championship sides enter the FA Cup as there are 32 third round ties down for decision over the next four days.

There are four non-league clubs still involved so there’s plenty of scope for an upset. Here are five talking points to digest before you immerse yourself with some good old-fashioned Cup football…

Where are the potential banana skins?

Soccer - FA Cup - Second Round - Gateshead v Warrington Town - Gateshead International Stadium It's a great opportunity for the smaller clubs to cause a shock Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Each year, without fail, there is at least one significant upset – the underdog’s tendency to prevail is what makes the FA Cup the competition it is. It’s only natural to look out for the non-league clubs but there are plenty of other fascinating ties. There’s a repeat of last year’s final with Arsenal taking on a recently re-energised Hull.

Tigers fans must still have nightmares about that game back in May when their side relinquished a two-goal lead at Wembley. Revenge will be very much on the agenda for the visitors on Sunday. For the Gunners, they haven’t quite pushed on from that elusive trophy win and find themselves in a similar predicament at the turn of the year.

With injuries continuing to plague Arsenal and the Champions League on the horizon, Arsene Wenger will be wary of fielding his big guns, particularly after a hectic fortnight. That said, only George Ramsay has won the FA Cup as a manager more times than Wenger (6). The Gunners have cup pedigree.

After hitting a blip of late, Chelsea will be wary of Watford while Manchester City won’t be taking anything for granted when Sheffield Wednesday visit Eastlands. But, Wednesday have failed to win any of their past 15 cup games against top-flight opposition.

Elsewhere, two Conference sides, Dover Athletic and Gateshead, face Premier League clubs with new managers in the form of Crystal Palace and West Brom respectively.

It’s the perfect opportunity for Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis to get their feet under the table but then again it would be the worst possible start to their respective reigns were they to come undone. Also keep an eye on Blyth Spartans as they host Birmingham City – that one has banana skin written all over it.

Clubs floundering in the league desperately seek cup spark

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Everton - St James' Park Everton could do with a win, regardless of the competition Source: Richard Sellers

It’s often said a good cup run can change a side’s fortunes and there are several clubs, particularly in the top-flight, that are in desperate need of a spark. Everton, in particular, stand-out. Roberto Martinez’s side lost all four of their games over Christmas and have endured a miserable first-half of the season.

While the Toffees are unlikely to get relegated, although they’re just four points from safety, Martinez, who finds himself under significant pressure, can help soften the blow of a poor season with a cup run, and perhaps more.

Under David Moyes, Everton enjoyed some success, most notably in 2009 when they made the final, but with West Ham visiting Goodison Park on Tuesday, they’re far from assured a place in the fourth round pot.

Similarly, Aston Villa fans have had little to shout about recently so Paul Lambert should, in theory, aim to boost the morale around Villa Park with some encouraging cup results. They welcome Championship strugglers Blackpool to the Midlands on Saturday and it could be an ideal opportunity for Jack Grealish to push for a regular starting berth.

Also, keep an eye on Brighton’s trip to Brentford as former Ireland international Chris Hughton takes charge of the Seagulls for the first time. The south coast club are struggling in the Championship but Hughton will be keen to get off the mark straight away.

How much worth will managers put on competition?

Soccer - West Bromwich Albion Press Conference - The Hawthorns Tony Pulis' first game in charge of West Brom comes against Gateshead Source: Nigel French

It’s often a conundrum for managers, particularly ones at clubs already engaged in a relegation dogfight. Managers don’t want to demean the competition or disrespect the opposition by making wholesale changes but such is the worth of staying afloat in the Premier League, it’s often in the best interests of sides to rest their regulars.

Having named the same team for six consecutive games, Sean Dyche will want to use Burnley’s game with Tottenham as a chance to shuffle his pack and let those who have been overworked recharge their batteries. But, having built up a bit of momentum in the league of late, the last thing the Clarets will want is a hefty defeat at the hands of a rampant Spurs.

There are countless managers in a similar situation, not just in the top-flight. Bournemouth, Ipswich and Derby are all flying high in the Championship and are in pole position for promotion so the league is their priority. But, they don’t want to exit proceedings at the first hurdle either.

It will be interesting to see how managers juggle it over the weekend and it will become a lot clearer which clubs are taking the FA Cup seriously and which ones see it as a sideshow.

Significance of Cup for United cannot be underestimated

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Hull City - Old Trafford Angel di Maria could get his first taste of FA Cup football this weekend Source: EMPICS Sport

After the ignominious defeat to MK Dons in the League Cup earlier in the season, United’s sole interest since has been on the Premier League. On the face of it, it seems – just like Liverpool last year – that their concentrated efforts are paying off as they currently lie inside the Champions League berths and are in a healthy position heading into the business end of the campaign.

Yet, United are not yet firing on all cylinders – as evidenced at Stoke – and their trip to Huish Park to face League One strugglers Yeovil Town on Sunday is a tie that will have their supporters slightly concerned. It would be a huge upset if Louis van Gaal’s side weren’t to win but you never know, that’s the magic of the FA Cup.

There is still along way to go in the league but if van Gaal can guide United to a top-four finish and possibly win the club’s first silverware (the Charity Shield doesn’t count) since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement then their season could be deemed as a successful one.

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Certainly, with the Red Devils off the pace at the summit, van Gaal is unlikely to deliver the title in his first season but success in the FA Cup would endear him to the Old Trafford faithful and convince many doubters that United are headed in the right direction.

With Angel di Maria back in training and several of United’s injured players returning, it should be the ideal opportunity for van Gaal to take stock and let those on the fringes stake their claim.

It’s too early to start talking about silverware just yet but United need to go into this competition with a purposeful ambition. They took MK Dons too lightly in August and they won’t want a repeat this weekend: van Gaal can ill-afford it.

All eyes will be on Gerrard and Liverpool

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Liverpool v Wimbledon Could there be a repeat of the 1988 final? Source: EMPICS Sport

Steven Gerrard’s announcement that he will be leaving Liverpool at the end of the season came out of the blue on Thursday and even his team mates were shocked by his decision. Regardless of whether he starts or not, all the attention will, naturally, be on Gerrard on Monday night when the Reds travel to Kingsmeadow to face League Two AFC Wimbledon.

One of Gerrard’s indelible moments in a red jersey came in this competition as his exquisite strike in the 2006 final changed the complexion of the game as Liverpool came from behind to beat West Ham.

It’s arguably the most evocative tie of the round and is set to be a cup classic as Wimbledon seek a giant killing. It’s a repeat of the 1988 final when Wimbledon pulled off one of the great upsets to lift the trophy. Since then, the club have endured times of hardship and Monday’s game will be a significant moment a decade after reforming.

Like United, Liverpool should look to the cup for some spark and while they’re already in the Capital One Cup semi-finals, Brendan Rodgers can seek more solace from the cup competitions.

Now that Gerrard’s departure has been confirmed, Liverpool need to start planning for life without their talismanic skipper. It’s inevitable that, for the next few months, starting with Monday, it will be the Gerrard show but the Reds need to ensure it’s nothing more than a sideshow.

How about Gerrard lifting the FA Cup at Wembley as his final act in a Liverpool shirt? It would be quite the story but first the Reds have to negotiate a tricky third round tie.

– First published Friday, 22.48

All of this weekend’s FA Cup fixtures can be found here

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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