Football: FA Cup fourth round - Underdogs move in for the kill

Bradford, Portsmouth, Ipswich and Sunderland lie in wait for vulnerable Premiership sides
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The Independent Online
THERE WE were, thinking the FA Cup had become an annual cull of the lowly by the high and mighty, when we were shaken out of our complacency by Swansea City and Fulham.

The third round had a long, slow fuse on it and it was not until 10 days after the opening exchanges that West Ham and Southampton suffered the fate of the giant in the pantomime. The fourth round today, however, might be more up front with its shocks.

Swansea and Fulham are still there, of course, and have plenty of scope for more embarrassment for their betters, Derby and Aston Villa, but even on a day belittled by the demands of television there are potential surprises littered all over the programme.

Leeds United will not relish a trip to Portsmouth, whose triumph over Nottingham Forest in the last round was downgraded from sensational only because of the parlous state of the opposition, while Everton will hardly feel comfortable at Goodison against Ipswich, who have scored 19 goals on their travels in the First Division (16 more than the Merseysiders have managed at home).

Newcastle, too, are playing poorly enough to be concerned by resurgent Bradford City's visit, while Sunderland could easily defeat Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, although whether that would be a surprise is debatable.

Leeds, the winners in 1972, will be fearful because, although their side might carry the trappings of the Premiership at Fratton Park, the personnel will be below what they would regard as their first team.

Alan Smith, Leeds' teenage striker, and the midfielders Lee Bowyer and Alfie Haaland all have one-match suspensions while the captain, Lucas Radebe, is on international duty with South Africa. Meanwhile cash-strapped Portsmouth have all to win and nothing to lose.

Ipswich's current record of three First Division defeats is hardly inspiring stuff ahead of their trip to Goodison, but that is to neglect several factors, not least of which is Everton. Ipswich could easily have forced a draw against the runaway First Division leaders, Sunderland, and with 16 clean sheets recorded in 28 League games, there is every reason for confidence, particularly as their opponents have not won in the Premiership since 12 December.

Ipswich may regard the match as a test of their Premiership credentials, but Sunderland will travel to Blackburn knowing what is a special occasion today should be a weekly event this time next year.

The Wearsiders look certain for promotion after creating a seven-point gap over the chasing pack and Kevin Ball, the captain, relishes the prospect of renewing acquaintance with the Premiership they left in May 1997.

"Every game we play this season is a big game," Ball said. "We've been at the top of the League for the majority of the season and it's a fact that everybody wants to beat you.

"That's natural in football. Whenever you play a side that's above you it gives you that little bit more determination to go out and beat them."

That, in a nutshell, defines the attraction of the FA Cup and is the reason why even Aston Villa, the joint leaders in the Premiership, cannot afford to take the visit of Second Division Fulham lightly, particularly as the Londoners are commonly considered to be playing in at least one division too low.

"The team Fulham have at the moment could almost be a lower Premiership side and they have showed their potential in the cups already this season," Gareth Southgate, who will be facing his former Crystal Palace team-mate, Chris Coleman, said.

"Chris is a very good player and one of a number of players who have real pedigree and could be playing a much higher level of football. With so many players of that standard in their team they are a real threat, but we are full of confidence at the moment."

It will also be a meeting of old acquaintances at Hillsborough, where Stockport's links with Sheffield extend beyond manager Gary Megson's two stints as a player at Wednesday. Roger Wylde, County' s physio, is also a former Wednesday player; Brendan Elwood, their chairman, grew up in the city a Sheffield United fan; and their right back Sean Connelly was born and lives in Sheffield and can see Hillsborough from his bedroom window.

"I'll be walking to the ground with my bag over my shoulder unless the manager insists I travel from Edgley Park," Connelly said. "I couldn't park any closer to the ground than outside my house.

"They have had some good results recently but we know they're beatable. At the moment they have only one outstanding player in Benito Carbone."

There will be several outstanding players at Old Trafford tomorrow but the attention is bound to focus on the strikers. Between them Liverpool's Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, and Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole of Manchester United have scored 61 goals this season.

Deciding which duo will be victorious tomorrow could come down to a lucky bounce but history certainly points in United's direction. The clubs have met 11 times in the FA Cup and only once have Liverpool emerged on top and even then, 1921, it required a replay.

Second matches might be necessary, too, for Arsenal and Chelsea, who travel to Wolves and Oxford tomorrow and on Monday respectively.

One quibble though: could it be that stretching the Cup over three days has something to do with what appears to be the public's declining interest in the competition?