Football FA Cup: Lucky losers hoping to be worthy winners

t THIRD ROUND Darlington make history at Villa Park after reprieve while First Division's finest provide early tests for Liverpool and Southampton
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FA CUP history is being made in all manner of ways this weekend. Not only have the holders passed up their right to defend the trophy and been replaced by a team already knocked out, but the second week of December is the earliest that the third round of the competition has ever taken place.

The common thread between those events is the proliferation of entries on the football calendar, for which having a mere 52 weeks in each year is proving increasingly inadequate. An expanded Champions' League, with fixtures on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout next spring, made FA Cup replays impossible for any English team involved and necessitated bringing forward every round from the third to the sixth.

Ironically, that meant Manchester United were free to play away to Aston Villa this afternoon, instead of which the squad will presumably be starting their Christmas shopping (or giving lifts to all those banned from driving), while Darlington, beaten at Gillingham in the second round, go to Villa Park instead.

The assumption, of course, was that the mighty United would bludgeon Villa, or anybody else, with such ease that there was bound to be a clash between the fourth round and the World Club Championship in January. John Gregory might have something to say about that, but he has other things to worry about, such as a vote of confidence from his chairman, Doug Ellis, and a tie against a side making impressive strides under David Hodgson, the former Liverpool and Middlesbrough striker.

The demands of television, Thursday night Uefa Cup games and police instructions mean that the 32 ties are spread over four days, with less than two-thirds of them starting at the traditional 3pm this afternoon. At least those old Cup stalwarts Ron Atkinson and Lawrie McMenemy, in making the draw, offered 17 clubs the opportunity of ejecting a Premiership side, with Tottenham and Newcastle the only all-Premiership tie.

Their confrontation at White Hart Lane tomorrow is a repeat of last season's semi-final, in which Alan Shearer's goals in extra time took Newcastle back to Wembley. The teams have already met twice this season: Spurs won 3-1 at home in August, when the graffiti was already on the wall for Ruud Gullit. A fortnight ago "New" Newcastle won 2-1, since when Tottenham have gone out of the other domestic cup at Fulham with what George Graham described as their worst performance of the season.

ITV and Sky have singled out Liverpool (at Huddersfield tomorrow) and Southampton (at Ipswich on Monday) as looking vulnerable in games with leading First Divison contenders on a good run. Liverpool are slowly becoming more consistent but, like a number of Premiership teams, will have to hope that their foreign contingent appreciate the qualities required when a packed home crowd are howling for a giant to be felled.

There is no shortage of candidates for the chop this afternoon. West Ham could find the ghosts of cup ties past at places such as Newport, Hereford and (only last season) Swansea, coming back to haunt them in Birkenhead, where John Aldridge's Tranmere have picked up dramatically in recent weeks. Wrexham have run the legs off a few famous names at the Racecourse Ground, none more so than Arsenal in 1992, and will hope to do the same to Middlesbrough.

Hereford themselves are still in there fighting, at home to Leicester, the last non-League representatives apart from Rushden & Diamonds, who go to Sheffield United tomorrow. The wise old Hereford manager, Graham Turner, acknowledges that a consistently solid Leicester are "perhaps the best equipped of any team to come into an FA Cup tie like this and survive".

Chelsea ought to be well enough equipped to do so at Hull, though they may need to pretend that Boothferry Park is the Olympic Stadium in Rome or the San Siro.

Everton saw off Bristol City 2-0 in last year's third round, which should stand them in reasonable stead at Exeter, but the other two Premiership sides travelling this afternoon, Coventry to Norwich and Bradford to Crewe, may do so a little apprehensively.

Manchester City ought not to be anxious about a trip to Chester, who are bottom of the Nationwide League, but probably will be, while Wigan Athletic, still unbeaten in the Second Division, could take a scalp at home to Wolves.

Most other contenders for a shock must achieve it away from home. Bristol City, Burnley and Birmingham can capitalise on any lack of confidence on the part of the Premiership's bottom three as they visit Sheffield Wednesday, Derby and Watford respectively. Barnsley's Dave Bassett should receive a big hand, if nothing else, at Wimbledon, his first club. Portsmouth and Port Vale will be much longer odds at Sunderland and Leeds.

But it is still the third round, so as Graham Turner says: "We can all dream". There will have been some sweet ones in unlikely places and some disturbed sleep for football's rich and famous last night.