Football / FA Cup: Norwich hoping to home in on United: Phil Shaw looks at this weekend's fourth-round FA Cup ties in which dreams may end on the road

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ALREADY a Merseyside-free zone, the fourth round of the FA Cup has shaken down in such a way that by tomorrow evening, the Wembley dreams and schemes of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham could also be in tatters.

Much depends on to what extent the concept of home advantage - which conspicuously failed Liverpool and Everton - lives up to its name. Premiership clubs have it in just five of the 16 ties, and in three of those they face opponents of equal status. Remarkably, of the 10 teams most favoured by the bookies to win the Cup, led by Manchester United, eight must travel.

The exceptions are Norwich, who tackle United tomorrow, and Newcastle, where Luton face a seemingly impossible task. Norwich, who drew at Old Trafford last month, represent a major obstacle to the treble aspirations Alex Ferguson predictably denies having, though even in this most egalitarian of competitions, the champions look more equal than others.

While the holders, Arsenal, have an awkward task at Bolton on Monday, none of the five Premiership clubs visiting supposedly humbler brethren today can be relishing the prospect. Manchester City, at Cardiff, look especially vulnerable.

City have not won the Cup for a quarter of a century, and if experience counts for anything Cardiff may make them wait another year. The Second Division side are studded with old stagers - from Mark Grew in goal through Mark Aizlewood in midfield to Gary Thompson up front - whereas an injury crisis has forced Brian Horton to rely heavily on youth.

Leeds, too, would not have chosen the cramped confines of Oxford's Manor Ground for their attempt to reach the fifth round for only the second time in 17 years. Oxford have

begun to find form under Denis Smith, and the Leeds players' admission that their morale was damaged by last Sunday's unpleasantness at Blackburn suggests a struggle should they fall behind.

West Ham, who went out at Barnsley last year, face the East Midlands' standard bearers, Notts County, who are practically invincible at home. A plague of injured defenders in both camps has thrown the tie wide open, but West Ham will be delighted with a draw.

Aston Villa's record of only two defeats in 20 matches on their travels indicates that they are pioneering the notion of away advantage. Villa have a score to settle at Grimsby, Alan Buckley's team having beaten them in the League Cup two years ago, but may have to be satisfied with a replay from a ground where the hosts have lost only once this season.

Charlton take on history as well as Blackburn at The Valley, where victory over the Premiership's big spenders would be their first in the Cup against a team from a higher level for 71 years. Stockport, at home to Bristol City, have not figured in the fifth round since 1950, while Preston ('66), Cardiff ('77) and Wolves ('81) also hope to end long absences.

Preston would normally carry goodwill befitting the Third Division's sole survivors. This time few neutrals will be backing John Beck's men to win at Kidderminster, the Vauxhall Conference club bidding to become the first non- League participants in the fifth round since Telford in 1985.

Coincidentally, the towns clashed in a cup tie at Aggborough a fortnight ago, the women of Preston prevailing 6-0. It should be closer today, when the Worcestershire side expect to have Paul Davies (242 goals in 10 years) back after missing the triumph at Birmingham.

The healing of Davies's hamstring has reportedly been accelerated by treatment in a hi-tech oxygen unit. However, to have any chance of progressing from the foothills of the fourth round to the rarefied atmosphere of the last 16, 'Kiddy', like all the underdogs, must summon a spirit as old as giantkilling - more state-of-the- ark, in fact, than state-of-the-art.

BETTING (William Hill): Manchester Utd 4-1; Newcastle United 5-1; Blackburn Rovers 6-1; Arsenal, Leeds United 8-1; Sheffield Wednesday 11-1; Aston Villa 12-1; Norwich City 18-1, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur 20-1.