ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's FA Cup fourth round action. Watch ESPN's FA Cup fourth round coverage with Watford vs Tottenham Hotspur on Friday at 7pm, Brighton Hove Albion vs Newcastle United on Saturday at 4.30pm and Arsenal vs Aston Villa on Sunday at 3pm
It’s FA Cup Fourth Round weekend and there are once again some intriguing ties taking place, not least the one at Anfield between those two old rivals, Liverpool and Manchester United.
The good thing from the point of view of the competition as a whole and some of the other sides involved in it is that Manchester City have gone out already, one of Liverpool or Manchester United are going to go out, and Chelsea and Arsenal are still pre-occupied with the Champions League.
Sides like Tottenham and Newcastle are now thinking ‘We’ve got a realistic chance this year.’
The purest cup tie of the weekend probably involves Newcastle, as they travel down to Brighton. It’s beautifully set up for a number of reasons, not least the difference in status between the two.
Newcastle are in great shape, currently sat sixth in the Premier League, while Brighton are currently tenth in the Championship, just two points off a playoff place having only returned to the second tier under manager Gus Poyet last summer.
The beauty of this one is there will be a record crowd at Brighton’s brand new ground, the AMEX Stadium, which is earning rave reviews; it’s one of the very best of the new grounds which have sprung up around the county in recent years. They dug out something like 138 cubic meters of chalk and much of the ground is actually built below ground level, so they have built into the Sussex chalk.
I’m really looking forward to going there and being part of what is going to be a 22,500 sell-out, for a tie which could easily go either way. Brighton play really nice football - they’re rather like Swansea in that they play a brand of expansive football which is very easy on the eye - and adopt the same 4-3-3 shape week after week.
Newcastle have had some very good news this week with Senegal crashing out of the Africa Cup of Nations, meaning strikers Demba Ba and new man Papiss Cisse, are going to be back much sooner than expected, but they won’t be back in time for this weekend.
That means it is the ‘B crew’ for Newcastle in some respects, with midfielder Chieck Tiote also away with the Ivory Coast. They should still have enough to progress, but the beauty of the FA Cup is that you can never be too sure.
Although Newcastle are a very diligent side, they’ll find it tough. Their North East rivals Sunderland lost at Brighton in the League Cup earlier this season, while Liverpool just about squeaked through in the same competition, so I’m expecting Brighton against Newcastle to be, if not the tie of the weekend, then certainly one of them.
Tottenham also travel to face Championship opposition, with Watford hosting the Premier League high-flyers on Friday evening.
The Hornets’ star performer is Marvin Sordell, a prodigious young forward whose ten goals this season have aroused the interest of several Premier League clubs. The rest of the side has been assembled for minimal money, containing players who have either arrived on free transfers or for very small fees, who have been unwanted by other clubs.
They’ve also got a promising goalkeeper in Scott Loach but I don’t know collectively that they’ve got enough to really worry Tottenham, Spurs have got a Premier League game four days afterwards, so it will be in Harry Redknapp’s mind to select a side that will rest most of the key players ahead of their Premier League game and I think he can afford to do that.
I watched Watford fairly closely recently in the run up to this game, and I struggle to see this one being an upset. They’re 18th in the Championship and in truth appear a fairly limited side. Even if Tottenham make a host of changes – which they well might – Watford have probably got enough to hurt them.
There’s been memorable moments between Watford and Tottenham, but unless Watford produce something that I’ve not seen in recent weeks, I think they’ll struggle to add another.
Liverpool versus Manchester United obviously leapt off the page when the Fourth Round draw was made. It’s a repeat of last year’s meeting in the Third Round which was the first game of Kenny Dalglish’s second coming, a game which from his perspective was marred by the sending off of Steven Gerrard.
It’s been a funny old week for Liverpool, berated by their manager for their lackluster performance at Bolton in the league last Saturday, they then played terrifically well against Manchester City in the semi-final of the League Cup on Wednesday evening, booking their first trip to the new Wembley. So they will head into this game on a tide of optimism. Manchester United will have it all on, because I think Liverpool’s performance at Bolton was a one-off.
The FA Cup will still be a high priority for these two teams, particularly for Liverpool because Dalglish is at a stage in his development of the club, where they need to win every trophy they can possibly get their hands on. The League Cup would be a good start in that respect, but the FA Cup would be a more prestigious pot to win.
For Manchester United, I’m not convinced they are going to take the Europa League particularly seriously. In a list of wishful trophies this season, the FA Cup would rank above the Europa League in Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind and for that reason I would expect them to pursue it fairly hard. A lot depends on how the title race goes.
If Manchester City were to surge ahead and Manchester United were not to have a realistic chance of winning the title going into the last six weeks of the season, you’d see them fielding strong sides in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final should they get there.
The Premier League as ever will have an overriding bearing on where the FA Cup comes on most clubs’ priority lists. For the time being I think it’s fairly near the top for both Liverpool and United.
With the Ferdinand–Terry issue really overshadowing Saturday’s meeting between QPR and Chelsea, what we should not forget is that it was actually an invigorating and fascinating Premier League game when the two met in the autumn; QPR’s defeat of their rivals was one of the seismic results of the season so far.
It is hard to see that happening again, but QPR are gradually improving under Mark Hughes. New players arriving are not going to be there this weekend, so I will be surprised if Chelsea do not go through.
The lowest ranked side left in the competition now are Swindon Town, with madcap maverick Paolo Di Canio as manager. Fourth in League Two, they go to Leicester City in a repeat of the 1993 play-off final, when Paul Bodin’s penalty earned Swindon a dramatic 4-3 win and with it a place in the Premier League.
I saw Leicester beat Nottingham Forest comprehensively in their third round replay ten days ago and they just seem to be coming good, they’re getting used to their returning manager Nigel Pearson and his demands and his ways. I think they are going to have a very strong second half to the season, I would expect them to beat Swindon and to be a threat to whoever they play later in the competition. They could be something of a wildcard from the Championship this year, because they do have a squad that is, if not brim-full, then moderately full of Premier League quality.
The other League Two side to mention are Crawley Town, who were one of last year’s heroes with that win over Derby. They go to Nick Barmby’s Hull City and they go there with half a chance given their league form.
At the very least, I think they would expect to get Hull back to the Broadfield Stadium for a replay. Those two League Two sides have got plenty to play for, but with both away from home, the draw could have been kinder to both of them.
But we are guaranteed at least one side from the lower half of the league structure going through, with the all League One meeting between Notts County and Stevenage.
Stevenage made headlines by beating Newcastle last season, while Notts County have been making quiet progress in this season’s competition.
We also have another chance to see Thierry Henry in action as Aston Villa trot out at Arsenal, where the mood will be an interesting one to gauge after last week’s events and the criticism of Wenger’s substitutions.
Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA Europa League and more. For more information visit espn.co.uk/tv
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