THE FA Cup third round is always a special weekend in the football calendar and even more so due to its timing.
Just as the Christmas decorations are taken down and a sprawling year lies ahead, unfamiliar and a little bit daunting, along it comes, evoking comforting memories from childhood and all while serving up drama and excitement by the bucketful. Frankly, it could be prescribed by the NHS such is its medicinal power. Take a non-league side hosting a household name at a decrepit old ground licked with fresh paint, followed soon after by a sleeping giant travelling away to a banana skin on a chilly January afternoon. Repeat until rash clears.
Alas, on this occasion we have been deprived of a really big clash but Aston Villa v Liverpool kicks things off nicely this Friday evening and given the recent form of both sides – not to mention Jurgen Klopp’s propensity to play the kids in domestic cup comps – the 47/20 available on a Villans victory is a terrific shout. Elsewhere, there is a cornucopia of curios along with the inevitable mundane fixture or two but wherever you look there is value to be found. Because that’s the beauty of FA Cup third rounds – the scripts are merely guides that are rarely followed.
Crawley Town to beat Leeds
The script for this one has the Red Devils comprehensively beaten but the League Two side will fancy their chances of replicating Colchester United’s famous cup shock in 1971.
Crawley have recovered well from a disastrous November and strung together eight games without defeat, a revival that has elevated them into play-off contention.
This has largely come about from possessing a strike partnership in Max Watters and Tom Nichols who have shared 20 goals between them to date and though it’s the latter who has impressed most, Watters’ prolificacy is hard to ignore. The 21-year-old has found the net every 75 minutes this term.
As for Leeds they have exited early from the cup in both seasons under Marcelo Bielsa while their Jekyll and Hyde results in 2020/21 continue to raise eyebrows.
Logic suggests there is simply no way Crawley will best Bamford and co. Then again, if logic was consistent no cup upsets would ever occur.
Stevenage to beat Swansea
Boro are third bottom in League Two and face a Swans side who are flying high in the Championship under Steve Cooper with the scent of the Premier League firmly in their nostrils.
It’s an away win, right? It’s a no-brainer.
Well, maybe, in fact probably, but don’t discount the fact that four of the last six teams to reach the top-flight fell at the first in the FA Cup on route to securing promotion. Three of them lost to opposition in lower leagues.
All it takes is the slightest dip in motivation; an unspoken feeling among the group that this is an unwanted distraction and when coupled with a weakened team selection anything can happen no matter how impenetrable Swansea have been of late.
Stevenage, however, still must possess certain qualities and thankfully they do, boasting the best defensive record outside of the top eight while successive wins over Christmas reveal they are on an upward curve.
Canaries to be clipped
Let’s double down on this theory and consider top-of-the-Championship Norwich at-risk too due to their prioritising of promotion.
Theirs is a much trickier task than what awaits Swansea with Coventry City heading to Carrow Road confident of getting a result after earning a draw there in late November. It’s also relevant that the Sky Blues have developed a decent away record in recent months, losing just two of their last six on the road.
Then we come to Norwich City’s long-standing FA Cup curse and it’s up to you how much stock is placed in that. Incredibly the Canaries have departed in the third round 15 times in the last 20 seasons and to put that into proper perspective last season’s victory over Preston was their first FA Cup triumph since January 2013.
In the past few years Tottenham have taken great delight in revealing that the ‘magic of the cup’ is merely smoke, mirrors and some forlorn hope in the form of nostalgia. Between 2016 and 2019 they found themselves cast as the bad guys against Colchester, Rochdale, Millwall – then in the third tier – and Tranmere. The aggregate score-line from these four mismatches was 23-1
Now it’s non-league Marine’s turn to take on a team residing a stunning 163 places above them in the footballing pyramid and though the Mariners will be patronised to within an inch of their lives by the media and duly cheered on by a nation we can expect Mourinho and his men to provide a cold, hard dose of reality.
Dreams are for dreamers. The pragmatic choice here is to back over 5.5 goals at 29/20
Luke Jephcott to terrorise the Terriers
Huddersfield Town have shipped in goals at an alarming rate this season while visitors Plymouth have amassed 13.7 shots per game despite languishing mid-table in League One.
If this suggests the Yorkshire club is in for a torrid time the main culprit is likely to be young striker Luke Jephcott whose 12 goals in 17 has attracted interest from – who else? – Huddersfield.
Should the Welsh star dump his potential future employer out of the competition expect it to happen early – 75% of Jephcott’s tally has been converted in the first half of games.