Despite the fact that it's regularly less entertaining than its black sheep cousin the League Cup, the FA Cup is clearly the most prestigious knockout competition in England. Teams take it seriously, fans take it seriously, and bowing out early to a lesser opponent is nearly guaranteed to lead to some form of a meltdown from supporters and pundits alike. Most teams aren't really going to be playing for anything tangible a month from now; the top and bottom of the table will separate, and the rest of the season is largely a reshuffling of the deck chairs. But if your team is still in the FA Cup, you've got something real and tangible to look forward to, games where something is actually at stake.
But as important as the competition is, managers face competing objectives. Young players need to get experience with the first team, regular players could use a rest, and marginal players that could be helpful in the league need to be given a chance to show what they can do. Fans sometimes complain about "weakened" sides being played in cup competitions, but there's real and long-term value to doing so. Unfortunately, giving a 19-year-old prospect 60 minutes of playing time isn't much consolation to being bounced from the competition earlier than would have been expected.
That's why rounds such as this one are sometimes some of the most entertaining from a neutral perspective. Get much deeper in and teams feel close enough that there's an obligation to play a full-strength team. But at this early stage (especially in the middle of a pretty crowded fixture list for most teams) there are likely to be lots of unfamiliar names on team sheets, and at least one or two unexpected score lines as a result. In a way, teams like Fulham and Stoke City, who face Manchester United and Manchester City respectively, are under significantly less pressure than a team like Wigan, who travel to play Macclesfield in the hopes of giving their fans a distraction from the relegation battle.
It's somewhat the opposite for the lower division sides, who have nothing to lose and the potential for a relatively big payday to gain. Clubs like Millwall, MK Dons and Sheffield United are likely to be quite pleased with the way things have turned out, with top-flight opponents that look quite fragile at the moment on tap. A good cup run can make an otherwise poor or unremarkable season memorable, and strong showings against Premier League sides can do wonders for the confidence of a team. And as Bradford City's unlikely path to Wembley has demonstrated once again, everyone loves an underdog. Except, of course, for the unfortunate team that they manage to knock off.
FA Cup Fourth Round, Complete Fixture List
Friday, January 25th, 19:45 GMT/2:45 PM ET
Millwall vs. Aston Villa
Saturday, January 26th, 12:45 GMT/7:45 AM ET
Stoke City vs. Manchester City
Saturday, January 26th, 15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET
Reading vs. Sheffield United
Macclesfield Town vs. Wigan Athletic
Huddersfield Town vs. Leicester City
Middlesbrough vs. Aldershot Town
Norwich City vs. Luton Town
Derby County vs. Blackburn Rovers
Bolton Wanderers vs. Everton
Hull City vs. Barnsley
Queens Park Rangers vs. MK Dons
Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Arsenal
Saturday, January 26th, 17:30 GMT/12:30 PM ET
Manchester United vs. Fulham
Sunday, January 27th, 12:00 GMT/7:00 AM ET
Brentford vs. Chelsea
Sunday, January 27th, 14:00 GMT/9:00 AM ET
Leeds United vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Sunday, January 27th, 16:00 GMT/11:00 AM ET
Oldham Athletic vs. Liverpool