FA Cup is last chance of glory for Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea
But its an away-day for the Premier League, with nine of 14 remaining teams playing away this weekend
IT'S THAT time of year when the FA Cup regularly interrupts the league programme. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of personal opinion. For most fans, a cup run is an enjoyable bonus that offers the chance of glory, but the other, less romantic, viewpoint is that the competition as a dangerous diversion that can derail the main business of the season, whether it is avoiding relegation, or pushing for the title, Europe or promotion.
Fans of Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa may view it as the latter this weekend as they face tricky away ties that could have repercussions for the rest of their campaigns.
But they are not alone. Of the 14 Premier League clubs still in the competition, only five have home ties and, of them, only Norwich, QPR and Reading are facing teams from lower divisions. The two biggest games of the weekend feature the two Mancester clubs, both of whom face top flight opposition.
League leaders Manchester United have a home tie against Fulham at Old Trafford. Having needed a replay to see off West Ham in the previous round, United will not want to be unduly delayed by the Cottagers this time round and with home advantage they should have enough to see off Martin Jol's strugglers.
However, United old boy Dimitar Berbatov may want to mark his return to Old Trafford by putting Alex Ferguson's nose out of joint, and if the laid-back Bulgarian has one of those days when everything clicks then United could be in for a game. But Fergie is a master of selecting the right team to get the job done and United should have enough to get into the next round.
Man City's trip to Stoke on Saturday lunchtime is an intriguing one. Roberto Mancini's team have come into form in recent weeks and will want to keep up the momentum as they try to catch Man United in the league, but the manager will also want to give some of his big names a rest. On the other hand, City must be realistic about their chances of overhauling United in the Premier League, and that means the FA Cup could be their best chance of silverware this term.
It all leaves Mancini with some tough decisions to make. But one man who could feature for City is Mario Balotelli and, if the rumours about a move to AC Milan turn out to be true, it could be the last time we see him in a City shirt. Forgotten man Michael Owen could feature for Stoke.
City's last five visits to the Britannia have all ended in a draw, but even though that would not help the City cause it looks like a fair prediction once again.
Arsenal face a difficult task on Saturday afternoon as they head to the south coast to take on Brighton, who knocked out Newcastle in the third round. Brighton's Uruguayan boss, Gus Poyet, has even been engaging in mindgames. Earlier this week the Seagulls manager, a former Spurs and Chelsea player who helped Real Zaragoza beat Arsenal in the 1997 European Cup Winner's Cup final, announced that he would like to take charge of the Gunners one day.
Arsene Wenger may have other ideas about that and will want to ensure that the momentum generated by his side's 5-1 demolition of West Ham on Wednesday does not go to waste. Wenger will also be aware that, short of a Champions League miracle, the FA Cup is his only chance of silverware this season and it is one that he cannot allow to slip thorugh his fingers.
With that in mind, expect the Frenchman to pick a strong team with too much firepower for Brighton. Having said that, it is impossible to predict what sort of performance Arsenal will produce, and Poyet's team talk to the Seagulls could consist of two words: "Remember Bradford."
Tottenham's task this weekend is, if anything, harder than Arsenal's. Andre Villas Boas and his men must head to Yorkshire to take on the once-mighty Leeds, whose fans absolutely relish this sort of match-up as it gives them the chance to remind the rest of the country that they were once the pre-eminent force in English football.
Spurs can expect a torrid reception at Elland Road, and will be pleased to escape with a victory. Leeds will fancy their chances of a win, but Spurs are looking like a decent outfit at the moment and have plenty of heart, as their last-gasp equaliser against Man United last week proved. A home win is unlikely but a replay could be on the cards.
Chelsea will still be feeling shellshocked this weekend, not just because of their Capital One Cup exit at the hands of Swansea, but thanks to yet another controversy, this time over Eden Hazard and his clash with a ballboy. The last thing they need is a derby at Brentford, but that is exactly what they have got.
Brentford are riding high in League One and there will be a febrile atmosphere at Griffin Park. Incredibly the two West London teams have not met since 1950 and the locals, who know that Chelsea are a wounded giant, will want to make it an occasion to remember. Heaven knows what will happen if Chelsea mess this one up, and Rafa Benitez will not want to find out. Chelsea should leave with the win, but this is the FA Cup and anything can happen.
The fourth round kicks off tonight with another match that could have serious implications for one of the managers. Under fire Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert takes his struggling side to South London to face Millwall, knowing that defeat will likely spark an all-out revolt among the fans. Villa are one point above the relegation zone, were dumped out of the Capital One Cup by League Two Bradford on Tuesday and an FA Cup exit at the hands of more lower league opposition could be too much to bear.
It will be interesting to see what frame of mind Villa are in for this one, but don't rule out a home win.
Other notable ties this weekend include a tough-looking trips into the wilds of Lancashire for both Liverpool and Everton as they travel to Oldham and Bolton respectively. QPR entertain the MK Dons, Reading play Sheffield United and Norwich face Luton. Wigan are away at Macclesfield.