The Third Round of the FA Cup has arrived, and now that teams from the top flight have joined the fun the spotlight gets a bit brighter. Of all the earlier rounds, this is perhaps the most enjoyable, as a few Premier League sides are guaranteed to make an early exit be it down to the luck of the draw or a shock upset from an upstart minnow. This time around there are four matchups between Premier League sides, meaning that at least four teams that would consider themselves capable of making a run will be out of the competition before it really even begins. And with some top-flight strugglers taking on quality lower-league competition, there's a decent chance that number may be larger when the weekend is all said and done.
Of the contests between Premier League sides, two stand out. The first will take place at Upton Park on Saturday as West Ham host Manchester United in the late afternoon game. The league-leading Red Devils will be clear favorites, but the Hammers have not exactly made it easy on anyone this season and there's perhaps no manager in football that's better equipped to set his team up to win one game than Sam Allardyce. Sunday will see Arsenal travel to the Liberty Stadium to take on Swansea City, in a game that has potential to be slightly more aesthetically pleasing than West Ham-United. Swansea's excellent early-season form has taken a bit of a hit in recent weeks, but it isn't as though the Gunners are without problems of their own (especially where cup competitions are concerned.) It's tough to view any early-round cup game as a "must win", but with Arsene Wenger under some duress at the moment this is not a game where Arsenal can really afford to be less than their best.
Elsewhere other top-flight-on-top-flight action, the seemingly unstoppable Rafa Benitez juggernaut travel to face Southampton in a game which can only serve to further displease Chelsea fans. Benitez is unlikely to improve his standing with Blues supporters no matter the outcome (though whether that makes him in any way deserving of sympathy is another matter) but a loss could very well be the thing that leads to an entire fanbase to collectively lose their minds. In games with fewer implications on the mental health of millions, QPR host West Brom at Loftus Road. While Rangers fans would likely love to have a bit of joy in what's been an unqualified disaster, a case could likely be made that an early exit and the chance to focus completely on the league would be a benefit to Harry Redknapp's side.
Predicting upsets in the cup is always a tricky proposition, but several games certainly have more potential than others. Ipswich Town has seen their form improve quite a bit since Mick McCarthy took the reigns, and they'll likely be quite pleased to be hosting an Aston Villa side that's been something of a shambles of late. With Paul Lambert's side having one eye on Tuesday's League Cup semi-final first leg against Bradford City, they could very well be even more vulnerable than their horrific form would indicate. Crystal Palace has been quite good this season, sitting third in the Championship and just two points out of an automatic promotion spot, and they're not the world's worst bet for an upset. Unfortunately they've drawn Stoke City, which is a cup opponent most teams wouldn't wish on their worst enemy.
The remainder of the big Premier League sides have what looks to be soft opposition this time around, and many a promising youngster will be hoping to get a chance to get some first-team experience. Manchester City host the Championship's sixth-placed side Watford, Spurs take on League One Coventry City, and Everton travel to face League Two Cheltenham Town at Whaddon Road. Last year's runner-up Liverpool will give non-league side Mansfield Town FC a bit of exposure, while Crawley Town--everyone's "favorite" minnow of recent years--will look to rekindle the magic against second-bottom Reading.
This round's full fixture list is below.
Saturday, January 5th
Brighton vs. Newcastle (12:30 GMT/7:30 AM ET)
Aldershot vs. Rotherham (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Aston Villa vs. Ipswich (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Barnsley vs. Burnley (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Blackburn vs. Bristol City (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Bolton vs. Sunderland (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Charlton vs. Huddersfield (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Crawley vs. Reading (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Crystal Palace vs. Stoke (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Derby vs. Tranmere (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Fulham vs. Blackpool (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Hull vs. Leyton Orient (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Leeds vs. Birmingham City (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Leicester vs. Burton Albion (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Luton vs. Wolverhampton (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Macclesfield vs. Cardiff City (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Manchester City vs. Watford (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Middlesborough vs. Hastings United (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Millwall vs. Preston (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Nottingham Forest vs. Oldham (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Ocford United vs. Sheffield United (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Petersborough vs. Norwich City (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Queens Park Rangers vs. West Bromwich Albion (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Sheffield Wednesday vs. MK Dons (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Southampton vs. Chelsea (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Southend vs. Brentford (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Coventry City (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
Wigan Athletic vs. Bournemouth (15:00 GMT/10:00 AM ET)
West Ham United vs. Manchester United (17:30 GMT/12:30 PM ET
Sunday, January 6th
Swansea City vs. Arsenal (13:30 GMT/8:30 AM ET)
Mansfield vs. Liverpool (16:00 GMT/11:00 AM ET)
Monday, January 7th
Cheltenham vs. Everton (19:45 GMT/2:45 PM ET)