All but two of the Premiership teams (Arsenal and West Ham had their Boxing Day fixture prematurely postponed for a strike that never happened) played four matches inside 12 days over the festive period and the two sides who gained the most points over the festive period were Tottenham and Manchester United, both of whom won three and drew one of their encounters. The Red Devils maintained their seven point lead at the top of the table by beating West Brom and Wigan in the last week, with an aggregate score of 6-0; while Spurs came from behind at Sunderland on Saturday to win 2-1, then repeated the feat in their home game against Reading, prevailing 3-1 with goals from Michael Dawson, Emmanuel Adebayor and Clint Dempsey. Tottenham have moved themselves up to third in the Premiership with those results, six points behind the reigning champions, Manchester City, who recovered from their Boxing Day loss at the Stadium of Light to earn a hard-fought 4-3 victory at Norwich, before taking care of business at home in a 3-0 win over Stoke. However, there was drama on their training pitch today, as pictures show manager Roberto Mancini apparently grappling with his trouble-making striker, Mario Balotelli, with the pair having to be separated by other players. With the transfer window now open once again, City will be happy to let the Italian forward move to another club, should anyone be willing to meet his wage demands.
On paper, Arsenal’s 7-3 defeat of Newcastle last weekend appears emphatic, but the home side took a long time to put the result beyond doubt, allowing Alan Pardew’s men to equalise on three occasions. Nevertheless, Arsene Wenger will have been pleased with the clinical finishing his side displayed in the final 17 minutes – a period during which they scored four of their goals – but that momentum did not carry over into their fixture on New Year’s Day, when they were held to a draw by relegation strugglers Southampton, leaving the Gunners in sixth place, four points below the Champions League places.
Two of Newcastle’s goals at the Emirates were scored by Demba Ba, but it looks likely to have been the Senegalese striker’s last appearance for the club, as Chelsea have triggered a £7m release clause in his contract and are set to secure his services before the weekend. With Ba absent from the squad on Wednesday, Newcastle lost 2-1 against Everton at St. James’s Park, a result that moved the Toffees back up to 5th in the table, after they had slipped a place following a home loss by the same scoreline against Chelsea the previous Sunday. That victory at Goodison Park was the third in a row for Chelsea, but if new manager, Rafa Benitez, had hoped he might be starting to win over the club’s supporters, that notion quickly evaporated in midweek as the Blues lost at home to bottom-of-the-Premiership Queens Park Rangers, 1-0, with the strike coming from one of their former players, Shawn Wright-Phillips. Those three points did not lift QPR – who had lost 3-0 at home to Liverpool at the weekend – off the foot of the table, but it did move them level with Reading who, before their defeat at White Hart Lane, had also gained their second win of the campaign last Saturday, as they overcame West Ham 1-0.
Aston Villa, who had been thrashed 8-0 by Chelsea and 4-0 by Spurs, continued their atrocious run with a 3-0 home loss against Wigan, but then were only just missed out on an unlikely victory in South Wales when Swansea scored a late equaliser to earn a 2-2 draw on New Year’s Day. That single point ensured that Villa were not bottom of the festive fixtures league as Norwich, who had been unbeaten in ten beforehand, lost all four of their matches, following up their previous week’s defeats against West Brom and Chelsea with the aforementioned 3-4 reverse against Manchester City and then falling 2-1 away to West Ham on Tuesday. The other games over the last week saw Stoke and Southampton share the points and six goals in a thrilling match at the Britannia; Fulham lost 2-1 at home to Swansea, they won away by the same margin against West Brom; and Liverpool had a second 3-0 victory in a row, this time beating Sunderland at Anfield.
This weekend sees the return of FA Cup action with the competition – whose magic I waxed lyrical about this time last year – reaching
the third round, when the clubs from the top two divisions enter the fray. It is now 22 years since Tottenham have won the trophy for the 8th and – to this point – final time, but each season this stage brings me hope that we might return to Wembley in May, while supporters of clubs in the lower leagues are looking for their side to stage a “giant-killing” upset. Here is a run-down of the third round fixtures:
Brighton vs Newcastle – Brighton are currently 9th in the Championship and within touching distance of the playoff places, while Newcastle are just two points above the relegation zone in the top flight and are adjusting to life without their top scorer this season, Demba Ba.
Aston Villa vs Ipswich – Mick McCarthy has got the Tractor Boys away from the bottom three in the Championship and will fancy his chances against Aston Villa, who have conceded 17 goals in their last four matches and may rest players as they focus their efforts on staying in the Premiership.
Bolton vs Sunderland – Bolton managed just one win in their four fixtures over Christmas and New Year, but they will want to prove that they can still compete against Premiership opposition, despite their relegation last May. Wanderers are always a tough opponent at the Reebok Stadium and Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill will be focused on steering his team to safety in the top flight, so may rest players for this cup encounter.
Crawley Town vs Reading – Two years ago, Crawley were the rich boys of the Non-League and gained the scalps of Derby County and Torquay in the FA Cup, before a narrow 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford against Manchester United. After back-to-back promotions, they now sit just outside the playoff places in League One and will like their chances against a Reading side who will be another Premiership club more interested in maintaining their status in the top flight than embarking on a run in this trophy.
Crystal Palace vs Stoke – Third in the Championship, Crystal Palace are fighting to return to the Premiership for the first time since the 2004/5 season. One of the keys to Palace achieving that goal will be to retain the services of their young winger, Wilfred Zaha, who has been linked with several big clubs and who could cause Stoke problems this weekend, should he be selected.
Derby County vs Tranmere Rovers – Tranmere are currently top of League One and will be excited to test themselves against Derby, who are in 10th place a division above them.
Luton Town vs Wolverhampton Wanderers – Although it would be a big upset if they beat a team three divisions above them, Luton will relish the opportunity to face league opponents once again and have only lost three times at home so far this season.
Macclesfield vs Cardiff – With the Welsh team currently top of the Championship and seeking their first ever promotion to the Premier League, non-league Macclesfield will hope they are sufficiently distracted for this FA Cup tie and give the Silkmen a chance of performing a giant-killing.
Middlesbrough vs Hastings United – While in reality there is no actual chance of Hastings United prevailing in this tie, the romance of the cup demands that I at least include this fixture as a potential upset, as the Arrows (yes I had to look up their nickname) from the Isthmian Premier Division – three tiers below League Two – take on Championship side Middlesbrough, who are 130 places above them.
Oxford United vs Sheffield United – Both of these clubs have seen better times and, although Sheffield United are currently in the promotion in League One, will Oxford are in the middle of the division below them, the U’s have some history of knocking out sides above them in the league pyramid, most famously Leeds United in 1994.
Peterborough vs Norwich City – A few weeks ago, an upset here would have seemed less likely, but four consecutive defeats for Chris Hughton’s men represents a huge loss of form, though they will still be expected to win away at Peterborough, who have lost 9 of their 13 home games in the Championship this season.
Tottenham vs Coventry – This should be a routine win for Spurs, but the same was expected when the two clubs met in the 1987 FA Cup Final, the only time that Tottenham have reached that stage of the competition and not gone on to claim the trophy. However, Coventry currently lie in mid-table in League One and it would be a huge surprise if they were to progress to the next round.
Mansfield vs Liverpool – TV schedulers are hoping that non-league Mansfield will cause the shock of the round, as they have made their match against Liverpool one of the televised Sunday fixtures. History suggests that the upset will come from elsewhere and this game will be without excitement or drama as the Premiership gains a comfortable victory.
Cheltenham vs Everton – Another tie that has been picked out as one to be shown live, Cheltenham are currently in the playoff places in League Two and have lost just twice at home all season. However, Everton have been beaten only once in their last 9 matches and should progress to the fourth round without too much trouble.
All Premiership Ties
QPR vs West Brom
Southampton vs Chelsea
West Ham vs Manchester United
Swansea vs Arsenal
Aldershot vs Rotherham (Both League Two)
Barnsley vs Burnley (Both Championship)
Blackburn vs Bristol City (Both Championship)
Charlton vs Huddersfield (Both Championship)
Fulham vs Blackpool (Premiership vs Championship)
Hull vs Leyton Orient (Championship vs League One)
Leeds United vs Birmingham City (Both Championship)
Leicester City vs Burton Albion (Championship vs League Two)
Manchester City vs Watford (Premiership vs Championship)
Millwall vs Preston North End (Championship vs League One)
Nottingham Forest vs Oldham Athletic (Championship vs League One)
Sheffield Wednesday vs MK Dons (Championship vs League One)
Southend vs Brentford (League Two vs League One)
Wigan Athletic vs Bournemouth (Premiership vs League One)