COVID-19 crisis, upsets, drama and fairy tales

It’s traditionally one of the most exciting dates in the English football calendar: the third round of the FA Cup, the oldest cup competition in the world, when the Premier League teams enter the fray. Upsets follow as lower-league teams are inspired by “the magic of the cup” to knock out more illustrious opponents.

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It’s the stuff dreams are made of, but 2020-21’s FA Cup has been hit (like everything else) by the lingering threat of COVID-19, which has put several games in doubt and led to some postponements. Regardless, there’s plenty of action to keep soccer fans glued to the couch all weekend: we get you ready for the action with the state of the competition, the best games to build your viewing around and the most menacing minnows that are primed to shock their elite opponents.

Jump to: COVID-19 threat? | Viewers’ Guide | Players to watch | Championship teams to watch | Magic of the cup

COVID-19 and the FA Cup

The shadow of COVID-19 has hung over the FA Cup all season, with preliminary rounds involving non-league clubs impacted by crowd restrictions, through to National League team Notts County having to forfeit their fourth qualifying round tie against King’s Lynn Town in October due to a number of positive tests. And they were far from the only club who had to give up their place.

Unfortunately, the situation has got worse rather than better, and the third round has already been hit by a series of issues that threaten to wreak havoc on the fixture list not only this weekend, but in the weeks to come.

Southampton‘s home tie against Shrewsbury Town has already been postponed due to a significant outbreak at the League One club, while Aston Villa‘s all-Premier League clash against Liverpool on Friday goes ahead despite several positive tests for Aston Villa.

Villa are expected to play an U23 team, in a role reversal to last season’s Carabao Cup tie between the two sides when Jurgen Klopp’s team were away at the Club World Cup. Derby will send an U23 squad to Chorley because of several first-team players having to self-isolate, and Middlesbrough may have to postpone their game at Brentford after closing the club’s training ground because of COVID-19. Sheffield Wednesday have also had to close their training ground ahead of their tie at Exeter, and will be without their whole first-team coaching staff.

The FA has funded testing for the 44 non-Premier League clubs participating in round three and problems were anticipated. But solutions are in short supply due to the congested nature of the fixture list this season, caused by the campaign starting a month later than usual as a consequence of the pandemic.

Clubs must contest their tie if they can field 14 fit players, which can include youth-team players, so you may see several teams forced to take that option this weekend. The alternative is to postpone the tie and hope to be able reschedule, but all third round fixtures must be played before Jan. 23 — the date of the fourth round.

It means clubs have just two weeks to find a new date and some clubs simply do not have a spare match date. If games cannot be rearranged, the COVID-affected club must forfeit the tie — and that seems likely in some cases. — Mark Ogden

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Julien Laurens questions Bruno Fernandes’ performances this season against the “big clubs.”

Viewing guide: Best games to watch all weekend

Need a quick review of what to watch and when? We’ve got you covered.

Aston Villa vs. Liverpool, Friday: When these two sides met at Villa Park back in October, Dean Smith’s side handed Jurgen Klopp’s men a 7-2 hammering, a match that summed up the unpredictable, unprecedented nature of this season. A rash of positive tests at Villa forced them to close their training ground Thursday, but the game goes ahead and you can expect Villa to field a team of kids rather than their star names. Liverpool will have little sympathy, having been forced to play Villa in the Carabao Cup in December 2019 while the first team was in Qatar for the Club World Cup, and losing 5-0. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 2:45 p.m. ET in the U.S.)

QPR vs. Fulham, Saturday: Fulham have been hit hard by COVID-19. Their last two Premier League matches have been postponed due to an outbreak at the club, and QPR will be hoping to knock over their west London rivals when the two meet. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET in the U.S.)

Everton vs. Rotherham, Saturday: Carlo Ancelotti is experiencing a rare silverware drought by his admittedly high standards, having last won a trophy at Bayern Munich in 2017. Everton are playing well in the Premier League and will be clear favourites to knock over Rotherham, who are second-from-bottom in the second-tier Championship. Rotherham have endured a tough season, and their own COVD crisis means they have played only once since Dec. 16. This offers them a chance for a free hit.(Stream live on ESPN+ at 7 a.m. ET in the U.S.)

Arsenal vs. Newcastle, Saturday: This is the eye-catching all-Premier League match up of the third round with Mikel Arteta’s rejuvenated Arsenal hosting Newcastle on Saturday evening. Newcastle last won a major trophy in 1955 and Steve Bruce has his hands full at St James’ Park with omnipresent uncertainty behind the scenes, but Arsenal are one of the form teams with three wins from three and head into this tie as FA Cup holders. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 12:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.)

Chelsea vs. Morecambe, Sunday: Chelsea have one point from their last three Premier League games and the pressure is on Frank Lampard to turn things around. Morecambe have ridden out their COVID-19 outbreak, having had their last two League Two matches postponed. But if ever there is a right time for the most monumental of FA Cup upsets for Morecambe, it’s now. Chelsea are misfiring in the Premier League and will be feeling the pressure on Sunday. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 8:30 a.m. ET in the U.S.)

Marine vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday: This match is already etched in FA Cup history. Eight divisions separate Northern Premier League Division One North West club Marine from Premier League high-flyers Spurs, in the widest gap between two sides in the tournament’s long and rich history. Marine’s dugouts and warm-up kit will be sponsored by Jamie Carragher’s JC23 Foundation for this tie and the Merseyside club are selling virtual tickets for the clash after government restrictions prevented them from having supporters in the stands. This is the slippiest of banana skins for Spurs as they prepare to take on a team featuring hospital workers and teachers. (Stream live on ESPN+ at noon ET in the U.S.)

Stockport County vs. West Ham, Monday: West Ham are ticking along nicely under David Moyes, but the tournament produces a seismic shock result every season and it could be the Hammers’ turn. Stockport County sit fourth in the National League Premier and will be keen to get past a Premier League opponent in the final scheduled tie of the weekend. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET in the U.S.) — Tom Hamilton

Players to watch

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta believes knockout competitions have never been more vital to the English football’s biggest teams.

“I think we are doing something good in the country in that every cup is becoming more and more important,” Arteta said. “For example, you saw in the Carabao Cup that the teams involved in the semifinals [Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and Brentford] and final [this year] compared to the last 18 years has improved.

“Everybody wants to win a trophy, everybody knows how difficult it is to win a trophy, so you have to stick to every competition.”

The FA Cup has been marginalised by the growth of both the Premier League and Champions League over many years, and it will be squeezed further in this most condensed of seasons. Yet silverware is always welcome and can be a precious commodity for any manager — Arteta would have found it tougher to survive Arsenal’s appalling start to the season without a trophy to point to — and although prize money has been halved due to the impact of COVID-19 on the FA, every penny counts.

The successful team will still receive a total of £3.4 million for winning the competition, a useful amount in a difficult climate, but the condensed schedule has made unprecedented physical demands on players, making even more rotation of players almost inevitably. So which youngsters could come in and make their mark in this season’s FA Cup?

Amad Diallo, MF/FW, Manchester United: Diallo’s £37m move from Atalanta was completed on Thursday, though he might not make an appearance in Saturday’s third-round tie against Watford. That said, United’s eagerness to land the 18-year-old now and not in the summer means he’ll be expected to get a shot as soon as possible. An agreement in principle between the clubs was reached in October, but the Serie A side wanted to keep him for the whole 2020-21 campaign. United pushed to complete a move for the winger in the winter window and an FA Cup run would offer him an excellent chance to make an early impression.

Billy Gilmour, MF, Chelsea: The 19-year-old underwent a knee operation in July after something of a breakthrough season at Stamford Bridge, in which he made 11 appearances either side of the lockdown. Arguably his most impressive performance came in Chelsea’s final game before the hiatus, against Everton on March 8, as Gilmour displayed a maturity in positioning and possession that many feel has been missing from the Blues’ midfield ever since. Jorginho has struggled at times in anchoring Chelsea’s midfield; Gilmour could use the FA Cup to rebuild his match sharpness and stake a claim for more regular involvement, either at the base of midfield or in a slightly more advanced role.

Japhet Tanganga, DF, Tottenham: It was a year ago this month when Jose Mourinho handed Tanganga a shock Premier League debut against defending champions Liverpool. Spurs were beaten that day, but Tanganga, whose only previous senior appearance had come against Colchester in the Carabao Cup, impressed on the right side of a three-man defence. He went on to feature regularly before lockdown — and signed a new five-year contract in July — only to make just five appearances this term, all in cup competitions. A thigh injury sidelined him for two months before missing three games in December with a shoulder problem, but the 21-year-old is fit again now and will hope for a string of appearances to continue his emergence. — James Olley

Don’t sleep on the Championship’s best

For those teams towards the top of the Championship (England’s second tier), you’d fancy the majority to progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup, which would then offer up some intriguing matches between sides in the Premier League and those hoping to rejoin them next season.

Norwich City are the form team in the Championship and have Teemu Pukki back in free-scoring form, while their brilliant midfielder Emi Buendia is on Arsenal’s radar, sources have told ESPN. They welcome Coventry City to Carrow Road on Saturday (stream live on ESPN+ at 7 a.m. ET in the U.S.) and will be favourites to head through to the next round.

Swansea sit four points off Norwich in second place and travel to Stevenage on Saturday (Stream live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET in the U.S.). Steve Cooper’s side edged past Watford at the weekend and have the meanest defence in the Championship thanks to an impressive centre-back pairing of Marc Guehi and Ben Cabango.

Bournemouth head north to Harry Kewell’s Oldham Athletic for their third-round tie on Saturday (stream live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET in the U.S.) and will be hoping their wonderful winger, David Brooks, can keep Latics’ defenders spinning in their boots. Josh King’s long-term future on the south coast is uncertain, with a number of Premier League clubs interested in his services, but they have plenty of class with Lewis Cook, Dominic Solanke and Jefferson Lerma all playing well.

Brentford, who lost to Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semifinals on Tuesday, sit one place back in fourth and are hoping to welcome Middlesbrough to their new stadium on Saturday evening (stream live on ESPN+ at 1 p.m. ET in the U.S.), pending the results of Boro’s latest COVID-19 testing. Ivan Toney is the top scorer in the Championship on 16 and even without Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma, who are both now in the Premier League with Aston Villa and West Ham (on loan) respectively. Brentford will have eyes on another playoff push this year and potentially a cup run. And keep an eye on Reading: they have the exciting 18-year-old Michael Olise ripping things up in the Championship and Lucas Joao banging in the goals.

If you’re after a shock result from the Championship, Watford and Stoke City are best placed to deliver upsets. Watford travel to Manchester United on Saturday (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET in the U.S.) under yet another manager — Xisco Munoz, who took the job in December, is their sixth manager in two-and-a-half years — and may spring a surprise against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lot. There’s also Stoke City, impressing under Michael O’Neill, who are preparing to face Leicester on Saturday. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET in the U.S.) Stoke sit eighth in the Championship and though they are coping without forward Tyrese Campbell due to injury, they will be hopeful of knocking over their Premier League foes. — Tom Hamilton

The minnows hoping for cup magic

The romance and beauty of the FA Cup third round is that it’s a weekend when the guy next door can live the dream of playing against the Premier League superstars — that is precisely what awaits the part-time players of Marine when they face Tottenham on Sunday (Stream live on ESPN+ at noon ET in the U.S.)

Marine, whose Rossett Park ground is less than six miles from Liverpool’s Anfield, sit in sixth position in the Northern Premier League North West Division — 161 places below Spurs in the English football pyramid, making this a true David vs. Goliath clash.

Manager Neil Young is a railway worker, captain Niall Cummins works as a gym teacher and striker James Barrigan is a bin-man. When Marine beat Havant & Waterlooville in the second round to book their clash with Spurs, goalkeeper Bayleigh Passant went viral after pictures emerged on social media of him buying celebratory post-match drinks from the local supermarket while still wearing his kit.

It would be the biggest shock in FA Cup history if Marine beat Spurs, but the tiny outfit are one of four non-league teams competing in the third round.

Stockport, relegated from the EFL in 2011, play West Ham at Edgeley Park on Monday aiming to repeat one of the most famous wins in the club’s history against the Hammers. Back in December 1996, Stockport beat West Ham 2-1 in the EFL Cup with Iain Dowie scoring a comical (and legendary) own goal to help County to victory. With Stockport sitting fourth in the National League, this promises to be a tricky tie for David Moyes’s West Ham.

Chorley, mid-table in the National League North, host Wayne Rooney‘s Derby County, who go into the game with the majority of their squad — Rooney included — self-isolating due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the EFL Championship club. There’s also National League side Boreham Wood, who take on Championship side Millwall at their tiny Meadow Park ground aiming to upset the 2004 FA Cup finalists. — Mark Ogden

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