The FA Cup will never lose its shine. Not for me anyway. Anyone who has ever witnessed a giant toppled by a minnow from 60 places below them in the football pyramid, anyone who saw Steven Gerrard hammer that 30-yarder past Shaka Hislop and anyone who has watched their side lift that famous trophy aloft, they will all say, you can’t beat the FA Cup.
The clichés about magic will go on forever, and so they should, it truly is a tournament that elevates the smallest of clubs to godlike status and has the capability to bring even the grandest of outfits to its knees.
This weekend brings with it the third round, one of the most exciting and intriguing of weekends in the football calendar. Prepare to hear the words plucky, underdog and gutsy with alarming regularity but prepare to embrace it.
There will be shocks, there always is. Football fans across the country will find themselves cheering on Eastleigh, they will be off their sofas as Exeter pile the pressure on an under strength Liverpool and they will get that spine tingling sensation when a top-flight Goliath is slayed by a lower league David.
The FA Cup is still the best cup competition on the planet and it’s time to take a look at the clubs that could leave the multi-millionaires reeling on this most mystic of weekends.
Exeter City v Liverpool
An obvious choice really. It’s the first game of the round, it’s live on TV and it is one of the biggest clubs in the world travelling to a League Two side whose changing rooms are smaller and less appealing than most of their opponents’ sheds.
However, there is more than romance to be considered here. Liverpool are in serious defensive strife. They have no centre-halves for this clash and it’s likely that he will use either Lucas Leiva or Emre Can alongside a youngster at St James’ Park. Hardly the most convincing of setups. When you consider they face Arsenal ay Anfield on Wednesday night, it is understandable that their German boss will look at his options.
Yes, the Grecians are on a run of four straight losses but they have an enigmatic manager who should be operating at a higher level in the sartotially elegant Paul Tisdale. We are yet to see how much respect Klopp will show this tournament and, as he has already admitted, if he makes one too many changes then his Reds side could be punished.
Exeter win or draw is 2.90
Manchester United v Sheffield United
This would really add to the turmoil at Old Trafford wouldn’t it? However, it wouldn’t actually be that much of a surprise. Louis van Gaal hasn’t exactly shown affection for domestic competition, as losing to Middlesbrough at home in this season’s Capital One Cup shows.
The fact United have won just one of their previous five matches on their own patch is a massive concern, throw in that they failed to score in three of those and Sheffield United fans will head to Manchester in expectation more than hope.
The Blades have won four of their preceding five matches, keeping clean sheets in three of those. They are one of the Football League’s form teams and in Billy Sharp have one of the third tier’s top scorers. In Che Adams they have a young trump card who is beign tracked by all the top clubs will cause their hosts problems. Overall they are an experienced bunch who won’t be fazed by their surroundings and if the hosts start slowly, as they so often do, things could get interesting in the north-west.
Sheffield United win or draw is 3.50
Wycombe v Aston Villa
Aston Villa are a shambles. They look destined for the Championship and their manager looks like a man who seriously underestimated the challenge that awaited him in the Midlands.
Garde has still to win a game as the Villa boss and it is very unlikely that he will be putting much onus on the FA Cup as he looks to perform a miracle and keep his club in the top-flight. Expect a raft of changes and a team that looks even more disjointed than the current starting XI. If that is indeed possible.
Wycombe are going along nicely in League Two and have won three of their last four matches. A chance to have a go at a fragile Premier League side should see a Chairboys team with their tails up and their eyes firmly focused on a place in round four.
Wycombe to win is 3.35
Oxford United v Swansea
Premier League Struggler? Check. Lower league promotion chasers? Check? Home tie for smaller club? Check. Game on TV? Check. Do you need any more reasons?
Well, Swansea aren’t exactly great this season are they? It’s one win in 10 matches and their only away success has come against Aston Villa, hardly something to get excited about. Alan Curtis has been handed the job until the end of the season and his number one priority will be Premier League survival, unfortunately this competition could be written off as a distraction.
Oxford are a side on the up. Michael Appleton has them playing some good attacking football. They have scored 40 goals in League Two and have the second best defensive record in the division. The likes of Kemar Roofe will see this as a chance to put themselves in the shop window and that could lead to a humbling for the Swans.
Oxford to win is 3.75
Eastleigh v Bolton
Bolton are the ultimate crisis club. They are £180m in debt and have won two games all season, leaving them cut adrift at the foot of the Championship. In Neill Lennon they have a good manager but his hands are tied and he is likely to lose players to keep the club afloat.
Eastleigh are the only non-league side left in the FA Cup and have been mind-blowingly ignored by the TV executives. Nevertheless, they will be delighted that they get to attempt to slay their giant at 3PM on a Saturday.
The wonderfully nicknamed Spitfires will really fancy their chances against the Trotters. They are fourth in the National League and with their opponents more intent on league survival they are primed for a famous third round victory.
Eastleigh to win is 3.25