Gay Meadow prepares to welcome Liverpool

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The lower orders had their day in the third round of the FA Cup, with Ipswich, Sheffield United and Charlton humbling the self-styled aristocrats of Blackburn, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. The fourth round tends to be a different matter: when the going gets tough, the toffs get going.

The Toffees of Everton proved a case in point last year, rising from the depths of the Premiership to win at Wembley. No Evertonian would shed tears for Liverpool were they to succumb at Shrewsbury today, least of all Fred Davies, the Second Division side's manager. In a neat bit of reverse psychology, Davies has had a sign placed above the players' tunnel - similar to the one that has struck fear into visitors to Anfield down the decades - which declares: "This is Gay Meadow".

Shrewsbury, whose squad includes four Scousers, have lost only four of their last 27 games. They also possess a striker with inside knowledge of Liverpool's three-man defence. Steve Anthrobus was a colleague of Phil Babb and Neil Ruddock at Millwall before joining John Scales at Wimbledon. Having scored seven goals in seven years, Anthrobus is ripe for his 15 minutes of fame.

Reading have used six goalkeepers this season, yet none of the three eligible to turn out against Manchester United is fit. The Bulgarian, Borislav Mikhailov, faces a late test on a thigh strain, Simon Sheppard has a broken arm and Nicky Hammond chicken-pox. The latter has volunteered to come out of quarantine and play, proof that Cup fever can still overcome lesser infections.

If Elm Park's keeper crisis is designed to lull United into over-confidence, the sight of a hideously bumpy playing surface should disabuse them of any such notions. Referring to the 20 tonnes of sand spread over it to assist with drainage, the Reading defender Andy Bernal remarked, with no intentional irony: "Our pitch could be a great leveller".

Port Vale's chances of causing an upset at Everton might have been greater had Joe Royle's team not already suffered a scare against Stockport, although the Potteries club can point to some encouraging auguries.

When they last faced the holders, in 1954, Vale beat Blackpool, including Stanley Matthews, en route to the semi-final. The current side, despite being 19th in the First Division, have won eight and drawn two of the last 12 games.

In the kind of duel which encapsulates the competition's charm, Vale are likely to deploy the 6ft 4in Gareth Griffiths, a pounds 1,000 buy from Rhyl, against Duncan Ferguson, who cost pounds 4m from Rangers. Ferguson plays on pending the verdict from a judicial review in Edinburgh into whether he must serve the remaining seven games of a 12-match ban from the Scottish FA.

The Cup quicksand has so far claimed four Premiership victims, a total that must at least double before this round is over. Nevertheless, ties between clubs from different levels remain the essence of the competition's appeal. In-form Aston Villa, who have not lifted the trophy in 39 years, are another team with an unenviable task, travelling tomorrow to Sheffield United, bottom of the First but conquerors of Arsenal.

The ex-files could be a particularly strong factor at Bramall Lane, with United's manager Howard Kendall looking to one of Villa's great stalwarts, Gordon Cowans, to bridge the chasm in quality.

Nor can Tottenham, Southampton or West Ham feel entirely confident today. Spurs' visitors, Wolves, are warming to Mark McGhee's radically different playing style, and will be hoping that Ian Walker does not recover from illness in time to face Steve Bull and co. In that event, Chris Day, 20, would make his debut in goal.

Southampton are on a hiding to nothing against Crewe, who stand second in the Second Division and have several young talents who will not look out of place in the company of Matthew Le Tissier. One, Neil Lennon, is likely to move up to the top level, possibly with Queen's Park Rangers, as and when Crewe go out of the Cup.

West Ham receive Grimsby, sadly no longer accompanied by the shoal of inflatable haddock in the stands. But the Mariners do have a big fish in a small pond in the shape of Ivano Bonetti, late of Juventus, who will be anxious to uphold the honour of South Humberside and Italy on the grand stage.