With the festive season drawing to a close and the decorations packed away, football fans can shake off the January blues watching the third round of the FA cup.
Coming hot on the heels of some stunning festive fixtures, the world’s most thrilling and beloved cup competition returns for its 138th iteration. Below, we preview three of the most hotly anticipated ties scheduled for the weekend….
Tranmere Rovers vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Friday, 4th January
We start at Prenton Park on Friday night, when League Two side Tranmere Rovers will do battle with Mauricio Pochettino’s impressive Spurs outfit for a place in the fourth round.
Die-hard fans will know there’s more to this tie than meets the eye, with Tranmere renowned for a couple of exceptional cup runs during the 2000/01 season. The Rovers celebrated the millenium by defying their second tier status an reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, before eventually losing to Liverpool at home.
This run included a superb 3-0 win at local rivals Everton in round four, and a thrilling 4-3 victory against Premier League Southampton just three weeks later – during which the Rovers had trailed 3-0 at half-time against the Saints.
Ironically, it was during this season that the club were relegated to the third tier of English football. This triggered a decline that ended with Rovers being relegated from the league altogether in 2015.
However, Rovers finished second in the conference last season to return to the football league, while a 1-1 draw at Macclesfield Town last weekend left them in the relatively healthy position of 9th in League Two after 26 games.
Tranmere have also been particularly strong at home this season. This form has helped them to retain a position in the top half of the table, despite five consecutive league defeats prior to their visit to the Moss Round.
This will certainly give them a fighting chance against Spurs, who despite being second have already lost five EPL games this season and are likely to rest a raft of players after a hectic festive schedule.
So although the White’s Jake Caprice has stated publicly that the club’s league form must take precedence over any cup run, particularly with Tranmere in the hunt of a play-off place, this is likely to be a keenly contested game that will prove to be extremely uncomfortable for Pochettino’s men.
Manchester United vs. Reading, Saturday, 5th January
At 12.30 the following day, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rejuvenated Manchester United side will entertain a struggling Reading outfit at Old Trafford.
The Royals have endured a torrid time since sacking the former United legend Jaap Stam last March, after last season’s promising early season form ended with a run of just one win in 18 games.
Following a 4-1 defeat by Swansea on New Year’s’ Day, Reading slumped to 23rd in the Championship, leaving them five points from safety and with a paltry four wins from 26 league games this season.
This is therefore hardly the ideal time to face an in-form Manchester United, who won their first three matches by an aggregate score of 12-3 after Solskjaer took over on December 18th. With key players suddenly returning to form and Alexis Sanchez now back in contention, it’s hard to imagine any other result than a comprehensive home win.
Sure, we expect United to rotate the squad ahead a trip to Wembley to face Spurs on 13th January, with the talented academy graduate Angel Gomes likely to start alongside players such as Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira and Diego Dalot.
However, Reading will also rest players in anticipation of a relegation battle in the spring, so they’ll need more than a little luck to reach the fourth round here.
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Liverpool, Monday, 7th January
The FA Cup third round ends on Monday night, when Nuno Santos’ impressive Wolves side take on an all-conquering Liverpool team that has established a dominant lead in the Premier League title race.
This is a repeat of the league fixture contested on December 22nd, which saw a comfortable 2-0 win for the Reds that ensured they’d enter the festive period on top of the EPL table.
Wolves put up a spirited showing, however, while their superb 3-1 win at Wembley against Spurs on December 29th highlighted their quality, eye-catching style of play and outstanding ability to punish top teams on the counter-attack.
They’ll certainly fancy their chances of springing a surprise here – particularly if Jurgen Klopp decides to rest players after a hectic Christmas schedule. Star centre back Virgil Van Dijk could be line for a well-earned rest, while fringe squad members Daniel Sturridge, Naby Keita, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne are also poised to start strong.
Despite the renewed depth of Liverpool’s squad, this could disrupt the flow and momentum of Klopp’s side, creating a tight and competitive game that has the potential to go either way.
With these points in mind, odds of 3/1 for a home win may offer value to punters and this will certainly be one of the most exciting ties of the entire third round.