The world’s oldest cup competition gets going in earnest this weekend when clubs from England’s top two leagues make their bow at the FA Cup’s third-round stage. It is a weekend that for many remains the highlight of the English football calendar, with 64 clubs of varying stature and backgrounds battling it out.
The main cause for excitement surrounding the FA Cup third round centers on matchups like the clash that will get things underway on Friday evening. In it Exeter City, currently in 84th position in England’s football pyramid, will welcome Liverpool, seven time FA Cup winners and one of the world’s most famous clubs, to their small St James Park ground. It is those David versus Goliath contests upon which the mystique of the FA Cup has been built over the past 144 years.
Arsenal were the victims of one of the most notable FA Cup giant-killings, when going down to Wrexham, then bottom of the entire Football League, in 1992. But they are also the most successful club in the competition’s history, lifting the famous old trophy on 12 occasions. And in the past two seasons they have swept all before them in winning back-to-back trophies. It means they enter this season’s competition with a chance to become the first club to win three successive FA Cups since the 19th century.
Still, it remains to be seen just how much of a priority accomplishing that feat will be to manager Arsene Wenger. Once a competition that was the equal of the league title, the FA Cup has declined in importance in recent years, hurt particularly by the money and prestige offered by the Premier League and Champions League.
Thus it is likely that when Arsenal, chasing a first Premier League title in 12 years, take on a Sunderland team battling to escape relegation on Saturday both teams will make a number of changes to their lineup.
In contrast, given their poor first halves of the season, Manchester United and Chelsea may be tempted to treat the FA Cup with more importance than they would have envisaged doing at the start of the campaign. Only Arsenal have won the competition more times than United, yet it is now 12 years since they last held the trophy aloft. And progress this season would help provide some breathing space to under pressure coach Louis van Gaal. Certainly he can ill afford anything less than a convincing win when his team hosts League One side Sheffield United on Saturday.
Chelsea have been the most successful club in the FA Cup over the past decade, winning it four times. And one of those triumphs came when the man who has just taken over from Jose Mourinho as coach, Guus Hiddink, was in charge for his first interim spell. His attempt to repeat that feat will begin on Sunday with the visit to Stamford Bridge of League One opponents Scunthorpe United.
While an upset may be difficult to envisage in those matchups, the romantic side of the FA Cup may still be found elsewhere on third-round weekend. The most likely venue may well be the home of non-League outfit Eastleigh. On Saturday the club currently competing in England’s fifth tier will take on one of the historic names of English football, Bolton Wanderers. While they have won the competition four times, and famously triumphed at the first final ever played at Wembley Stadium in 1923, Bolton have fallen on hard times both on and off the pitch, and are now rooted to the foot of the Championship. A defeat to Eastleigh would pile on yet further misery
FA Cup schedule and draw (all times EST)
Exeter City vs. Liverpool (2:55 p.m.)
Wycombe Wanderers vs. Aston Villa (7:45 a.m.)
Watford vs. Newcastle United (10 a.m.)
West Brom vs. Bristol City (10 a.m.)
West Ham vs. Wolves (10 a.m.)
Hartlepool United vs. Derby County (10 a.m.)
Colchester United vs. Charlton Athletic (10 a.m.)
Peterborough United vs. Preston North End (10 a.m.)
Northampton Town vs. Milton Keynes Dons (10 a.m.)
Arsenal vs. Sunderland (10 a.m.)
Newport County vs. Blackburn (10 a.m.)
Ipswich Town vs. Portsmouth (10 a.m.)
Birmingham City vs. Bournemouth (10 a.m.)
Sheffield Wednesday vs. Fulham (10 a.m.)
Brentford vs. Walsall (10 a.m.)
Bury vs. Bradford City (10 a.m.)
Everton vs. Dagenham and Redbridge (10 a.m.)
Southampton vs. Crystal Palace (10 a.m.)
Eastleigh vs. Bolton Wanderers (10 a.m.)
Nottingham Forest vs. Queens Park Rangers (10 a.m.)
Doncaster Rovers vs. Stoke City (10 a.m.)
Leeds United vs Rotherham United (10 a.m.)
Huddersfield Town vs. Reading (10 a.m.)
Middlesbrough vs. Burnley (10 a.m.)
Norwich City vs. Manchester City (10 a.m.)
Hull City vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (10 a.m.)
Manchester United vs. Sheffield United (12:30 p.m.)
Oxford United vs. Swansea City (7 a.m.)
Carlisle United vs. Yeovil Town (9 a.m.)
Chelsea vs. Scunthorpe United (9 a.m.)
Tottenham vs. Leicester City (11 a.m.)
Cardiff City vs. Shrewsbury Town (1 p.m.)