Football: Titanic struggle in prospect as Boro look to make waves

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There is a chance that some of the Premiership's flagship sides could be sunk by lower- division opposition in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Phil Shaw looks at the prospects of a wet weekend for some, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

In a week dominated by sinking ships, in the White House and on the silver screen, the FA Cup's fourth round resembles a disaster waiting to happen for some of the Premiership's most opulent members.

So there could be no better time for Arsenal, Newcastle and Aston Villa to have the option of welcoming back the past, present and possibly future England captains in Tony Adams, Alan Shearer and Gareth Southgate respectively.

All three, having had lengthy lay-offs through injury, may feel as if they are going in at the deep end of the Bermuda Triangle. For while their teams all meet opposition from a lower level, it will surely not be plain sailing for any of them.

Arsenal, who visit Middlesbrough, face the most arduous task. Despite seven matches without defeat, the failure to beat Port Vale in three and a half hours' play bodes ill for their prospects against the team lying second in the same division.

Adams' reappearance would offset the loss of David Seaman, who had just been rediscovering his best form. However, the man their fans believe epitomises the essence of the club will be straining every sinew to knock them out.

One suspects Paul Merson would react to scoring the winner against his beloved Gunners with the same mixture of professional satisfaction and personal sadness that Denis Law showed after his backheeled goal relegated Manchester United. Merson says he has nothing to prove to Arsene Wenger. Yet there are many, even within the Highbury squad, who were dismayed by his sudden departure. Arsenal are not over-blessed with proven performers under 30.

Bryan Robson's team appear better equipped to handle the mental and physical rigours of Cup fighting than several of Wenger's players. Boro reached both major finals last spring; Arsenal have not gone beyond the fourth round of the FA Cup since winning it in 1993.

On the face of it, Villa and Newcastle ought to steer clear of danger at home to West Bromwich Albion and away to Stevenage respectively. The trouble with the Cup, or rather its enduring attraction, is its habit of bringing out hidden depths in the most innocuouslooking of obstacles.

Brian Little and Kenny Dalglish have both had to make a critical decision concerning the centre-forward position. The Villa manager, relieved to restore Southgate after the 5-0 battering at Blackburn, will not risk Savo Milosevic against Albion.

Milosevic, transfer-listed for spitting at his own supporters, may not even be in the country, having reportedly flown home to Serbia. His absence will at least ensure that Villa's fans are behind them. Hostility towards him might have created the ideal atmosphere for the First Division outfit.

Dalglish, meanwhile, probably saw enough in Shearer's 30-minute cameo at Liverpool to persuade him that the pounds 15m man is ready to start against Stevenage's part-timers tomorrow. His presence would give added spice to a tie which, after all the acrimony over venues, needed none.

The home side stand 99 places behind Newcastle. Even if Shearer's introduction were to be delayed, Dalglish's highly paid internationals should be unsinkable, although there are grounds for believing in the unthinkable.

For one thing, the last Conference-Premiership meeting, between Woking and Coventry a year ago, was initially drawn. For another, Newcastle's Cup record since the 1960s includes defeats by non-League Hereford and Bedford, as well as a draw with Hendon. Stevenage will also have a whole city behind them, namely Sunderland.

Manchester United's devastating rout of the holders, Chelsea, suggests they should be too quick and powerful to slip up at home to Walsall. Jan Sorensen, the Second Division club's Danish manager, advocates an open passing game. Commendable as that is, it is likely to play into Alex Ferguson's hands.

The other Manchester club - which is, alas, what City are nowadays - stage what looks likely to be a far closer tie, against West Ham tomorrow. It would be all too typical of City to be relegated and win the Cup in the same season.

Leeds and Wimbledon, struggling in the Premiership recently, also face an awkward passage. Leeds, who receive Grimsby, struggle against the ball played in on the ground to mobile strikers, which is Alan Buckley's managerial trademark. They also have a history of home knock-outs by smaller clubs. Portsmouth and Reading both joined the list over the past 12 months.

At nearby Huddersfield, resurgent under Peter Jackson and Terry Yorath, Wimbledon will do well to repeat their fifth-round victory of two years ago. The mood at one of Yorath's former clubs, Cardiff, may be subdued against Reading following Russell Osman's dismissal as manager. No such problems at The Valley, where Charlton anticipate their biggest crowd since reopening in 1992 for the visit of Wolves.

Crystal Palace's tussle with Leicester raises the possibility of Tomas Brolin being shadowed by his fellow Swede, Pontus Kamark, while Barnsley return to Tottenham barely a month since succumbing 3-0 there. It looks like full steam ahead for Spurs, although there may be a happy omen for Barnsley in the opening of a certain film. The last time the Titanic was launched, in 1912, they won the Cup.

Birmingham v Stockport

Best Cup

Runners-up 1931, 56 performances 5th round 1935, 50

Birmingham will check on the fitness of their influential midfielder Martin O'Connor for the game with their First Division rivals at St Andrews. The former Crystal Palace, Walsall and Peterborough player has been having treatment for a groin problem all week but should be fit. Striker Kevin Francis has also been under treatment for a groin injury, but should be available. Gary Megson takes a full strength Stockport squad to Birmingham. "We are looking as good as we've looked on the injury front for a long time," Megson said. With Mike Flynn, Paul Cook and Jim Gannon shaking off injury, Megson is likely to stand by the team who won at Bury last Sunday as County bid to reach the fifth round for the first time since 1950.

Cardiff v Reading

Best Cup

Winners 1927 performances Semi-finalists 1927

Cardiff's director of football, Kenny Hibbitt, takes his side into today's game without the help of team manager Russell Osman, who was sacked yesterday. Hibbitt is expected to recall Craig Middleton after a two-match suspension. Hibbitt also has to decide on his strike partnership, although he is likely to rely on Kevin Nugent and Carl Dale, who played together for only the second time this season at Colchester on Tuesday.

Reading face a defensive crisis with five centre- backs on the injured list. Barry Hunter, Linvoy Primus, Dariusz Wdowczyk and Keith McPherson have been joined on the injury list by Gareth Davies, Reading's pounds 100,000 signing from Crystal Palace, who pulled a hamstring against Cheltenham. If Davies is unfit Michael Thorp, who replaced him against Cheltenham, will make only his sixth start alongside Andy Bernal in the middle of the back four. Striker Carl Asaba has completed a three-match ban but is likely to be on the substitutes' bench.

Charlton v Wolves

Best Cup

W 1947 performances W 1893, 1908, 49, 60

Charlton have eight successive home wins behind them including victories over promotion rivals Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. They are expected to be unchanged for the third successive match. The London club have beaten Wolves just once in their last 15 meetings, and their only success against the Midlanders in the FA Cup was their 5-2 fourth-round win at the Valley in January 1946.

The Wolves manager, Mark McGhee, has refused to reveal his plans for today. McGhee has midfielder Paul Simpson available again after a three- match suspension but will not say if he will be recalled. Wolves are still without midfielders Simon Osborn and Michael Gilkes along with striker Steve Bull and centre-half Adrian Williams.

Coventry v Derby

Best Cup

W 1987 performances W 1946

Coventry defender Gary Breen has recovered from a chest infection and will line-up alongside the recalled Richard Shaw, who replaces Paul Williams (hernia operation). Manager Gordon Strachan has to decide whether to include his recent pounds 3.25m signing Viorel Moldovan, who has been on the bench for the last two games.

The Derby striker Dean Sturridge is out with a thigh strain while midfielders Stefano Eranio, Lee Carsley and Darryl Powell are back from suspension and defender Christian Dailly could be on the bench. The Sky Blues have met Jim Smith's side four times since the Rams returned to the top flight at the start of the last season, and have lost on every occasion. They were convincingly beaten 3-1 at Pride Park back in November and suffered an embarrassing collapse in the FA Cup at the Baseball Ground last season.

Coventry manager Gordon Strachan is a confirmed fan of Smith and said: "Just to be in the game for as long as he has without going off his head means he must be a good manager. He has done very well over the years and has now built a very attractive side at Pride Park. They have a nice system which allows them to accommodate three types of striker. They play good, exciting football but we are doing alright at the moment and I am happy with the way the lads are. They have had a spring in their step this week."

Crystal Palace v Leicester

Best Cup

RU 1990 performances RU 1949, 61, 63, 69

Crystal Palace will be without three key players through injury - strikers Neil Shipperley and Italian Attilio Lombardo and defender-cum-midfielder Neil Emblen, but record pounds 2.75m signing from Strasbourg, defender Valerien Ismael, is likely to make his debut. Midfielder Simon Rodger is still having treatment. Palace have not won a home Premiership match all season, despite overcoming both Scunthorpe and Hull in their two Cup games at Selhurst Park. Coppell sees the FA Cup as a "pleasant diversion" from their continuing struggle against relegation and has highlighted Leicester as the side that his team must emulate if they are to survive - and produce a good cup run.

The Palace manager highlighted the skills of Leicester wing-back Steve Guppy and centre-half Matt Elliott, who was with Palace as a youngster, and said: "We said at the start of the season that they were our role models.They came into the Premiership via the play-offs, survived and then won the Coca-Cola Cup which got them into Europe." He added: "They just keep on going and going like Wimbledon do. That's the quality that ourselves and all promoted sides have got to look at matching."

Leicester manager Martin O'Neill is set to field an unchanged line-up as strike duo Emile Heskey and Ian Marshall should be fit from groin problems and skipper Steve Walsh, who faces a fitness test on a hamstring strain, expects to be given the all-clear.

Huddersfield v Wimbledon

Best Cup

W 1922 performances W 1988

Huddersfield will be without new striker Paul Barnes as he is Cup-tied after playing for former club Burnley against Rotherham in an earlier round. The arrival of manager Peter Jackson and coach Terry Yorath has increased the belief that Town are primed for shock.

Wimbledon have limited striking options with forwards Marcus Gayle and Carl Cort having only former Barnet front man Andy Clarke as back-up. Manager Joe Kinnear's problem is compounded with recent striker signing Carl Leaburn cup-tied. He is still without Efan Ekoku (ankle ligaments) and Jason Euell (dislocated shoulder).

Ipswich v Sheffield United

Best Cup

W 1978 performances W 1899, 1902, 15, 25

Ipswich will have centre-half Jason Cundy (thigh) and midfielder Bobby Petta (flu) back but midfielder Kieron Dyer (groin) and centre-half Tony Mowbray (groin) will have fitness tests. Back in the Ipswich squad for the first time this season is Dutch full back Gus Uhlenbeek after a foot operation. Sheffield United will be without David Lee. The on-loan Chelsea defender is ineligible and returns to Stamford Bridge next week.

Leeds v Grimsby

Best Cup

W 1972 performances SF 1936, 39

Leeds will be without South African defender Lucas Radebe (back) and Norwegian midfielder Alf Inge Haland, who is ruled out with an ankle injury. Nigel Martyn replaces Mark Beeney in goal after completing his one-match ban. Tommy Widdrington is out of the Grimsby squad with a recurrence of a back strain. The former Southampton midfielder was expected to slot in for Wayne Burnett, who is on loan from Huddersfield, but has had a recurrence of a back strain. Either Kingsley Black or Kevin Jobling will stand in.

Manchester United v Walsall

Best Cup

W 1909, 48, 63, 77, 83 performances 5R 1939, 75, 78, 87

85, 90, 94, 96

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Andy Cole will spearhead the Manchester United attack as England international Teddy Sheringham has not been in training. Brian McClair, Henning Berg and Phil Neville come into the squad. Berg said yesterday: "I don't know too much about Walsall but the manager does. We know that if we don't do our things right and play up to our normal standard, then it is going to be a very tough game." Walsall go into the tie with Manchester United at Old Trafford with memories of a 1975 giant- killing over the famed Red Devils. Twenty three years ago they drew 0- 0 at Old Trafford in the third round, then won the replay at Fellows Park 3-2 in extra time. And they go into tomorrow's match with four successive wins behind them in league and cup matches this year. Geoff Peron (hamstring) has recovered while veteran skipper Derek Mountfield lines up in defence after recovering from a back injury.

Middlesbrough v Arsenal

Best Cup

RU 1997 performances W 1930, 36, 50, 71, 79, 93

Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson only has one major injury problem with Republic of Ireland international full back Curtis Fleming definitely out following an appendix operation. Robson's side may feature up to five teenagers. England Under-18 internationals Anthony Ormerod and Andy Campbell, along with youngsters Craig Harrison, Steve Baker and Mark Summerbell may all feature as more senior players are rested for League games. Robson said: "The kids have not let me down this season. Promotion is our top priority and the next League match at Stoke City is more important than the cup ties." Arsenal captain Tony Adams returns to replace the injured Martin Keown, who is joined on the sidelines by David Seaman and Ian Wright. Alex Manninger will deputise for Seaman and Nicolas Anelka for Wright, but Marc Overmars (hamstring) is set to return and midfielder David Platt (groin) is still ruled out.

Aston Villa v West Bromwich

Best Cup

W 1887, 95, 97, 1905, 13 performances W 1888, 92, 1931, 54, 68

1920, 57

England defender Gareth Southgate returns to the Aston Villa line-up after recovering from an ankle injury and it is a timely comeback as Riccardo Scimeca has been ruled out of today's match with a hamstring problem.

West Brom manager Denis Smith has no new injury problems to contend with and is likely to leave combative midfielder Peter Butler out of the line- up in favour of young striker Lee Hughes. Albion have been impressive in the last couple of games when Hughes and Kevin Kilbane have worked together on the flanks, with Andy Hunt and Micky Evans spearheading the attack.

Smith is relishing the chance to tackle Villa, saying:: "These are the games you live for as a player and a manager. The opportunity to take on one of your local rivals and a team in the Premier League - it doesn't get much better than that."

Tottenham v Barnsley

Best Cup

W 1901, 21, 61, 62, 67 performances W 1912

81, 82, 91

Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to be partnered for the first time by fit- again Tottenham striker Les Ferdinand. Ferdinand has recovered from a thigh injury, but manager Christian Gross will decide in the morning whether to start with the England striker. Tottenham will also be without club captain Gary Mabbutt. He took a knock on his big toe in training on Wednesday. Gross will play Frenchman David Ginola in a free role behind the front two, sacrificing Scotland international Colin Calderwood from his recent midfield anchor slot, which now goes to Italian import Nicola Berti. Espen Bardsen, the 20-year-old Norwegian goalkeeper, retains his place, with Ian Walker still recovering from a shoulder injury. Gross has refuted suggestions that Walker could be out for three months, saying the England reserve could be ready to return in two weeks.

Barnsley striker Jan Age Fjortoft, a recent pounds 800,000 signing from Sheffield United, is Cup-tied so manager Danny Wilson will choose between John Hendrie, Andy Liddell and Georgi Hristov to partner Ashley Ward in attack. Centre- backs Arjan de Zeeuw and Adie Moses return to the defence having completed two-match suspensions.

Tranmere v Sunderland

Best Cup

5R 1968 performances W 1937, 73

Tranmere face a difficult task as Kenny Irons starts a two-match ban and Lee Jones, Gary Stevens and Andy Thorne are all likely to be sidelined. Striker David Kelly (knee) is only rated a 50-50 chance and central defender John McGreal faces a late fitness test on a knee injury.

An injury to Darren Williams is threatening Sunderland manager Peter Reid's plans to name an unchanged side for a record-breaking 11 games in today's game. Williams is struggling to recover from a hamstring injury picked up against Manchester City. Alex Rae missed training earlier in the week but is expected to recover from a thigh injury. Reid has several options if 20-year-old Williams is ruled out and although Richard Ord is favourite, Chris Makin, Andy Melville and skipper Kevin Ball all come into contention.

TOMORROW

Manchester City v West Ham

Best Cup

W 1904, 34, 56, 69 performances W 1964, 75, 80

Manchester City's chances of causing an FA Cup upset have been boosted by pounds 3.5m striker Lee Bradbury's return to the squad. Bradbury has been out for nearly four months after breaking a bone in his back last October.

Tim Breacker returns to the West Ham squad after recovering from ankle and knee problems but fellow right wing back Andy Impey is definitely out, along with Paul Kitson, who still has a groin injury. Steve Lomas will replace the suspended John Moncur in midfield.

Lomas returns to the West Ham team to face his former club with the job of stopping the man he rates as having the "fastest feet in football." The Hammers captain will be asked to cancel out the threat of Manchester City midfielder Georgi Kinkladze. Lomas comes back after a three-match ban.

Stevenage v Newcastle

Best Cup

4R 1998 performances W 1910, 24, 32,

51, 52, 55

Stevenage manager Paul Fairclough has one major selection headache for tomorrow's tie with Newcastle. Full-back Ryan Kirby is suspended for the eagerly-anticipated clash at Broadhall Way after his sending-off in the second round at Cambridge United and a number of bookings. James Dillnutt is the favourite to fill in, but the product of the club's development scheme is only 18 and Fairclough may not want to risk him on such a big occasion.

Three players have thigh strains - midfielder Simon Stapleton, defender Steve Holden and Guiliano Grazioli - but all three hope to be fit. Grazioli missed Monday's victory over Hereford, but should come in, with either Neil Trebble, Gary Crawshaw or Dean Wordsworth likely to step down. The team will train today before Fairclough decides on his line-up.

Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish is waiting until tomorrow to decide if the England captain, Alan Shearer, will play, while the Belgian defender Philippe Albert has recovered from a hamstring strain. Midfielder David Batty has completed a four-match ban but centre-half Darren Peacock must serve the second game of a two-match suspension.

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