Cup magic lives on despite lack of dramatic pairings

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The Independent Football

It started at Flixton, close to where 100,000 will besiege Old Trafford and Maine Road this weekend, before 195 diehards in an extra-preliminary tie against Goole in August.

It started at Flixton, close to where 100,000 will besiege Old Trafford and Maine Road this weekend, before 195 diehards in an extra-preliminary tie against Goole in August. It will end in tears of joy and despair at a bulging Millennium Stadium in May. Yet no stage of the FA Cup, including the final now, engages the popular imagination like the third round.

In a competition devalued by administrative bungling, television tinkering and the changing priorities of the leading clubs, this is where the magic lives on. At least that is the theory. A draw which delivered six all-Premiership and five all-First Division games offered few of the requisite collisions of opposites, though there is still scope for an upset of the kind Leeds endured at Cardiff last January.

The Premiership big-hitters most at risk this time could well be Newcastle at Molineux tomorrow. For all their Cup pedigree they have not won the trophy since 1955, even longer ago than Wolves, who beat them en route to their last success five years later and have lost only one of eight FA Cup games between them.

Wolves are again under-achieving in the First Division, to the consternation of their owner-chairman Sir Jack Hayward. His pointedly public comments this week about reviewing Dave Jones' position "daily" suggests that Wolves may be playing for their manager's job. So it will be fascinating to see the level of commitment of Paul Ince, Denis Irwin and co against a team that can defend as badly as they attack brilliantly, although Wolves' shortage of fit strikers will not help Jones' cause.

Leeds' humbling in Wales, at a time when they led the entire Premiership rather than merely its bottom half as they do today, was "a disaster" according to Mark Viduka, and one from which they are perhaps only now recovering. It is also a precedent to encourage two Third Division clubs. Scunthorpe now receive Leeds in a match that pits their manager, Brian Laws, against Terry Venables 12 years after he played for Nottingham Forest in a final won by Venables' Tottenham.

Oxford visit the current table-toppers, Arsenal, looking for a fairytale ending from Jefferson Louis. A year after completing a prison sentence for driving recklessly, the Arsenal-mad striker headed their second-round winner against Swindon and then performed a half-naked jig for the TV cameras on learning the draw.

Oxford's manager, Ian Atkins, may have had in mind the likelihood of Arsène Wenger's fielding as many as eight fringe players (including the Birmingham target Matthew Upson) when he remarked that Cup romance was a thing of the past. The not-so-distant past in Atkins' case; he was in the Shrewsbury side that beat Malcolm Allison's Manchester City on a quagmire over two decades ago. Gay Meadow has seen a deluge this week, which could represent Shrewsbury's best chance of unsettling Everton.

The non-League survivors, Morecambe, Dagenham & Redbridge and Farnborough, drew short straws: away to Ipswich, Plymouth and Darlington respectively. Morecambe lie fourth in the Conference, but Joe Royle has transformed the Suffolk side's fortunes. Any improvement on the 3-0 scoreline Ipswich took home from Morecambe at the same stage two years ago will be a moral triumph for Jim Harvey's team.

Portsmouth, the First Division leaders, pulled out the plum the trio craved: a bumper pay day from a 67,000 crowd at Manchester United. Pompey's captain, Paul Merson, reckons that, financially, it will be "like playing three games at once", but sympathised with his part-time brethren. "They've already played more games than clubs coming in now will have to win to lift the Cup," he said, not strictly accurately. "They've come through all sorts of battles only to get sent to a Second or Third Division club with a small gate and little money."

Nearly a third of the Premiership must fall, while West Ham and West Bromwich also look vulnerable. Home defeat by Forest might be a Hammer horror too far for Glenn Roeder's managership, though he was still talking yesterday about bringing in two, possibly three, new faces before the transfer window shuts again.

Albion knocked out two Premiership clubs, Sunderland and Leicester, last winter, only to find the top flight altogether tougher on a weekly basis. The roles are now reversed as they take on Bradford City. With Gary Megson promising/ threatening to recruit several players, a Cup flop could mean that push soon comes to shove for some of the Albion squad.

Liverpool, reduced to chasing cups after autumn promised more significant silverware, can only hope that the old adage about League form (no wins in 11 for them) being irrelevant to Cup prospects holds true at Manchester City. Similarly, Middlesbrough visit Chelsea having played 11 hours and two minutes of football since they last scored away in the Premiership. "This could be the turning point for us," said the Boro manager, Steve McClaren, "but we seem to say that about every away fixture."

Aston Villa's match with Blackburn should provide an interesting comparison at left-back, of all positions. The veteran Alan Wright, formerly of Rovers, is back in favour with Graham Taylor, while Graeme Souness may again play the 17-year-old prodigy James McEveley there.

Meanwhile, Blackpool against Crystal Palace may not be one of the glamour ties, but May represents the 50th anniversary of the "Matthews final", with all its lost innocence and untainted heroism. Where better for the FA Cup to regain some of its lustre?