Cup the key as managers seek escape Leeds need to find the key for escape

Phil Shaw relishes a weekend of frenzied activity in the third round of the FA Cup
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The Independent Online
As events this week have shown, there is more than one way to get out of jail. For Howard Wilkinson, and to a lesser extent George Graham and even Kevin Keegan, the key to escaping present pressures may be winning the FA Cup.

All three have become prisoners of the expectations they have generated. However, whereas Arsenal retain an interest in Europe and Newcastle prospects of reaching it, the road to Wembley is the only chance Wilkinson and Leeds have to break out of a cycleof under-achievement.

It may seem inconceivable that Leeds would re-assess the role of a manager who brought them the championship, especially with Wilkinson active in the transfer market. The unthinkable at Walsall could force a re-think, as Graeme Souness found when Liverpool, then fifth, fell to Bristol City in last year's third round.

A side seventh in the Premiership should feel confident about visiting one second in the Third Division. Yet Leeds's record - Watford, Oxford, Sunderland and Mansfield have dumped them from the two main trophies of late - gives Chris Nicholl's team causefor optimism that they may still figure in tomorrow's fourth-round draw.

Since Nicholl presided over a League Cup victory against West Ham on the night of his appointment in September, Walsall have lost only once. And for those seeking portents in the past, Eddie Gray's reign at Elland Road was ended after a cup match at Walsall...which Leeds won.

Millwall, receiving Arsenal for the second year running, are in a similarly rich vein of form to Walsall. Tony Adams hit a disputed late winner last time, but Graham's inspirational captain will be absent. Mick McCarthy, perhaps sensing that Arsenal werebecoming underdogs, has warned his players against the Gunners' alleged ability to snap out of a poor run.

In view of Newcastle's own recent vulnerability, and with unhappy memories stirred by every action replay of Hereford '72, Keegan may be thankful to be facing Blackburn tomorrow rather than an unknown quantity.

The outcome may depend on whether the Premiership leaders can sieze the initiative. If Newcastle score first, the ground will be a soundtrap of Tyneside triumphalism. The feeling that the title might more easily be taken without a distracting Cup run maythen become a factor for Blackburn.

A curious aspect of this potentially epic collision is that although it features free-spending superpowers - and two of the favourites to relieve Manchester United of the silverware - Blackburn last lifted the Cup in 1928 while Newcastle have reached the40th anniversary of their most recent Wembley triumph.

Birmingham, where Barry Fry is striving to implement the Kenny Dalglish blueprint on a more modest scale, have a chance to measure their progress against the country's form team, Liverpool. The Second Division leaders promise to be hard to beat, despite a plague of injuries, and could well emulate the League Cup draw with Blackburn that forms part of a 23-game unbeaten sequence.

Even in its 114th season, the Cup has conjured a novel confrontation: Germany v France. Jurgen Klinsmann, making his competition debut for Tottenham, will be marked by Paul France, the Altrincham defender whose day job happens to be with Leeds United. The Conference club drew at Spurs in 1979, but this time a slender defeat and a fat cut of the gate would suffice.

There is more likelihood of a shock at Barnsley, where Aston Villa encounter a side fired up by Darren Gough's deeds; at Wrexham or Grimsby, who entertain Ipswich and Norwich respectively; or at Wycombe, the kind of hurdle at which West Ham habitually fall.

If League form truly has no bearing on Cup results then Sheffield Wednesday, 10 points over the holiday, should lose at Gillingham of the lower Third. Similar logic dictates that Mansfield versus Wolves, top scorers in Third and First, ought to end 0-0.

Meanwhile, best is unlikely to be enough for the Diadora League trio. Aylesbury, having relinquished home advantage to QPR, must also make up an even bigger disparity, of 106 places, than Marlow at Swindon. Still, where there is Clifford Hercules, a scorer in 11 consecutive games, there is hope.

History, as well as their hosts' feeble form, offers encouragement for Enfield at Leicester. In two tangles with Isthmian clubs, in 1975 and '80, Leicester trailed 2-0 at home to Leatherhead before scraping through and lost to Harlow - even with Gary Lineker in attack.

Such upsets explain why third-round weekend is so eagerly anticipated. They are also the reason why the most exciting and egalitarian event in the football calendar is certain, for some of the rich and famous, to become the Nightmare after Christmas.

Francis finds freedom, page 46