The FA Cup stirs into life again this weekend with sixteen fourth round ties taking place over Saturday and Sunday. A good blend of fixtures sees five all-top flight affairs – including arguably the tie of the round, Everton versus Chelsea – mixed in amongst several Football League match-ups as well as a game between League Two side Torquay and the side that – by virtue of being the only one remaining from outside the top four divisions – I have an obligation to refer to as flying the flag for Non League football, Crawley Town.
Beginning with the game at Goodison Park on Saturday, Everton can point to a record of only one defeat in six against Chelsea in all competitions as they seek to avenge their 2-1 defeat to the Londoners in the 2009 final. For their part, Carlo Ancelotti’s side scored four without reply at Bolton on Monday night and will be hoping that their ‘moment’ – as the Italian wonderfully kept referring to Chelsea’s prolonged slump – has finally ended.
Elsewhere in all-Premier League land, Aston Villa come into their home tie against Blackburn having rediscovered that winning feeling after back-to-back victories over Manchester City and Wigan in the space of four days. These two sides can’t stop meeting each other in the cups, having already contested a League Cup match in September that Villa won 3-1, as well as three further knockout games last season. Villa were wretched in losing 2-0 to Blackburn at Ewood Park in the league in November though and Rovers’ manager Steve Kean will also be glad that Darren Bent is cup-tied.
A Lancashire derby between Bolton and Wigan and a meeting between two London sides – Fulham and Spurs – provide the draw with some regional rivalries. The Trotters and the Latics have never met in the FA Cup before; whether or not that piece of information will be the most interesting point to come out of the fixture remains to be seen. The game at Craven Cottage suggests glamour and excitement but a total of ten goals in the last seven games between the sides currently managed by Mark Hughes and Harry Redknapp somewhat undermines that image. Meanwhile, Birmingham – fresh from Wednesday night’s League Cup drama against West Ham – host a Coventry side at St Andrews that started the Championship season well but have floundered of late, in what can loosely be called a Midlands derby.
The fifth and final tie between a pair of Premier League teams sees Stoke travel to Wolves. Although, given that the Potters have a league game against Liverpool next Wednesday and Mick McCarthy probably fancies a cup run as much as Andy Gray fancies an evening with Germaine Greer, the most likely result is that both managers field shadow sides.
The top three teams in the Premier League have all been drawn against League One opposition and each tie has a sub-plot attached to it. Arsenal welcome Huddersfield Town to the Emirates on Sunday, with the clubs linked by Herbert Chapman. The man who invented the “WM” formation that dominated English football for two decades during the first half of the twentieth century spread his four league titles and four FA Cup successes as a manager equally between the London and Yorkshire clubs during the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile, Manchester City visit another League One side – Sunderland’s conquerors Notts County – in a match between two teams with a Sven connection. City also have a lot money, while County only thought they did. Any FA Cup game between Manchester United and Southampton inevitably conjures up memories of the 1976 final and Bobby Stokes’ winning goal for the Saints, but United will be hoping to complete a hat-trick of cup victories at St Mary’s over the past seven seasons.
West Ham are the one remaining Premier League side to discuss. Their opponents are Nottingham Forest and, with Billy Davies’ men hitting form in the Championship and the Hammers coming off a hugely disappointing League Cup defeat on Wednesday, Avram Grant will once again be auditioning for his job.
Running through the other remaining fixtures, Brighton’s visit to Watford looks like a particularly attractive proposition between two teams picking up plenty of points as well as plaudits in their respective divisions. The third round’s biggest giant-killers – Crawley Town and Stevenage – have been rewarded with matches against, respectively, Torquay United and Reading. Not what either side might have been hoping for, perhaps, but it gives them both a decent chance of making the last 16. Leyton Orient, who saw off Norwich City in the third round, meet Championship opposition again in the shape of Swansea. Finally, Eddie Howe, 33, takes charge of Burnley for the first time in the FA Cup with Burton Albion the opponents, managed by another man under 40, Paul Peschisolido, while a further struggling League Two side – Hereford United – have the chance to forget their lowly league position for one weekend with a trip to Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday.