Football: Pitcher aiming to strike out United: Henry Winter assesses the FA Cup quarter-finals

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AFTER 4-3-2-1, it is back to another Wembley countdown. Zeroing in on the FA Cup final are eight teams seeking to emulate England's midweek performance, combining passing and passion in quarter-finals spread over the next three days.

The duel of the day today comes at the imposing home of Manchester United, where Paul Ince runs into Charlton Athletic's rising Darren Pitcher. Judging by the way Pitcher handled David Batty (Ince's replacement at Wembley) in the fourth round at Blackburn, Ince will have his work cut out in the most intriguing of the four confrontations between the Premiership and the First Division. 'I played against Incey a couple of times in reserve matches when he was at West Ham,' the 24-year-old Pitcher said. 'He's one of the best midfielders in the country now.'

Several managers believe Pitcher could mature as markedly as Ince has under Alex Ferguson. Certainly Pitcher's Cup goals, which dismissed Rovers and then Bristol City, have aroused interest from other clubs, who are watching closely a midfielder nearing the end of his Charlton contract.

But Pitcher and his team-mates know they have, in Cup parlance, a mountain to climb - the challenge assuming Himalayan proportions when Eric Cantona reported fit after two games out.

Mark Robson understands the size of his new team's task, having played the champions for West Ham earlier in the season. 'I will warn the lads that it is easy to be overawed,' the Charlton striker said. 'We have had a bit of a joke in the dressing-room this week about all the United stars and who might have to mark whom. They are so talented. A lot of what they do is off the cuff and I don't know how you can stop that.' Joe Kinnear, manager of United's fifth-round victims, Wimbledon, suggested kidnapping Cantona. He promptly scored.

Chelsea's Gavin Peacock, son of the Charlton reserve-team manager, Keith, has twice exposed United's occasional weakness to the darting attacker but if the Robins do prevail at Old Trafford today - for only the third time in 60 years - it will eclipse all the other upsets of this pleasingly unpredictable season.

Ten miles away at Burnden Park, where Charlton faltered last weekend, Bolton possess a far better chance of progressing at Oldham's expense. Bruce Rioch's attractive First Division side have already knocked out Everton, Arsenal and Aston Villa but will encounter Oldham in upbeat mood after seven games without defeat. The visitors' buoyancy versus Bolton's self-belief and clamorous support points to a replay, unless John McGinlay and Jason McAteer can impose their considerable presence for the hosts.

At Stamford Bridge tomorrow, Peacock will be aiming to outscore his former Newcastle United colleague, David Kelly, now in Wolves' clothing. The only cups Chelsea have won since their 1971 Cup-Winners' success range from the modest (ZDS and Full Members) to the very modest (Cross-Channel and Makita) but Peacock is confident of bringing 'some silverware back to the club this season'.

It should be close. Wolves, whose real Wembley target is in the play- offs, are no push-over, as their two enterprising performances against Ipswich Town indicated.

Nor are David Pleat's well-balanced Luton Town easy prey for West Ham United at Upton Park on Monday. Tomorrow's semi-final draw could be complicated . . .

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