Stakes are high as Arsenal and Chelsea face vital FA Cup ties
Weekend preview: Wenger and AVB know their futures rest on results this weekend
IT'S FA CUp time this weekend and with the two Manchester sides already out of the competition there is the chance for other teams to step into the limelight for once.
Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool are all in action against lower-league opposition over the weekend, while Arsenal face a massive tie at Sunderland, which could have serious repercussions for the future of the their manager and the club itself.
Sunderland v Arsenal
The only all-Premier League tie of the round pitches the under fire Gunners against Sunderland for the second time in a week, and it is hard to overstate the importance this game to Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger has had a miserable time of it lately. The summer was a disaster for him as Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri quit the club, then came the infamous 8-2 defeat against Manchester United as Arsenal's title challenge petered out long before the clocks went back. Things appeared to be improving until a strong Gunners side produced an absolutely shambolic performance against AC Milan.
Now the knives are well and truly out and Wenger knows that a repeat of last year, when Arsenal's season imploded over the course of a few short weeks in February and March, will be too much to bear for the fans. That means he has to stay in this competition and the bottom line here is that if Arsenal lose then the futures of their manager and his squad will be thrown into serious jeopardy.
The Gunners beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in last week's league encounter, but the winning goal came from the veteran Thierry Henry, who has now returned to America. It is symptomatic that the 34-year-old became so crucial to Arsenal during his loan spell. How they will fare without him remains to be seen.
Arsenal may be without both Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at the back, and Sunderland will take great heart from having watched the Gunners fall apart against AC Milan. They had a good look at the Gunners last week and will be confident that they can get one over on them.
It is a tough one to call, but at the moment you would have to choose Martin O'Neill over Arsene Wenger.
Stevenage v Tottenham
If League One Stevenage could pull off a victory on Sunday at the Lamex Stadium then it would be the upset of the round. The Hertfordshire club have never got this far in the cup before and victory over title-chasing Spurs would be even more impressive than their win over Newcastle last year.
Stevenage have lost their manager Graham Westley to Preston but their league form has not suffered and they are still pushing for a play-off place. Spurs, though, should have too much for the minnows.
Harry Redknapp is the centre of attention at the moment thanks to the England job, but any suggestion that the talk of him leaving was unsettling his side was put to bed last week when they demolished Newcastle. If Redknapp does leave Spurs he will want to do so on a high, and with the title slipping out of his reach the FA Cup could be his best bet.
Spurs will surely be too focused to slip up.
Chelsea v Birmingham
Andre Villas-Boas has had a torrid week. There were reports of a bust-up with senior players after the defeat at Everton, there has been speculation about his future and he ended the week making bullish statements designed to slap down dissent on the training ground. Now he faces a real banana skin, and who knows how Roman Abramovich will react if Chelsea slip on it.
The manager made a big call when he warned his squad that he was only interested in impressing the owner. "If the players want to be part of this club's future, they have to support the project with their performances," he said.
How they respond on Saturday lunchtime will be telling and AVB will know that another insipid display could sound the death knell for him.
Birmingham, who are fifth in the Championship but are in sketchy form, really have nothing to lose and they and their fans will enjoy the day out in London.
Liverpool v Brighton
Gus Poyet's Brighton head to Anfield on Sunday afternoon riding high after knocking Newcastle out in the last round, and having beaten the Magpies, the trip to Liverpool will not daunt them.
The Reds though will have no intention of losing to a Championship side. After knocking their arch rivals Manchester United out of the competition in the last round, Kenny Dalglish will have no intention of throwing it away against the Seagulls. Liverpool have already made it to one cup final and will have serious designs on a domestic cup double.
All eyes will be on Luis Suarez, yet again. His disgraceful actions at Old Trafford last week dragged the name of Liverpool through the mud. It will be interesting to see whether Dalglish selects him for the match, and if he does what sort of a reception he gets from the Anfield faithful. Dalglish and the Kop have stood resolutely behind the player up til now, but he may have pushed them too far last week.
Brighton will view the sideshow as a bonus as it could distract Liverpool from the task at hand, and they will be confident of getting something from the game, especially as Liverpool have become draw specialists at home.
Championship strugglers Millwall could lighten the mood at the New Den with a win over Bolton, who appear to be heading for the Premier League trap door. Owen Coyle's men will not be looking forward to their trip to south east London.
Crawley of League Two are the lowest placed side left in the cup, and they will entertain Stoke on Sunday, who were playing in Europe on Thursday night. There wil be a great atmosphere at the Broadfield Stadium, but they are unlikely to overcome Tony Pulis's outfit.
In the other two ties Everton entertain Blackpool of the Championship and Norwich play host to another Championship side, Leicester. ·