For many football supporters, FA Cup third round weekend is one of the most eagerly anticipated dates on the footballing calendar, throwing up a whole host of intriguing ties which give lower league clubs the opportunity to upstage more illustrious, higher ranked opponents. In 2016 it is no different; indeed it is epitomised by the opening encounter of the weekend which takes place in South Devon as Exeter City play host to Liverpool.
Although they are currently in the midst of their poorest run of the season, Exeter have a number of flair players in a squad which blends the exciting youth of Tom Nichols and Jordan Tillson among others with the immense experience of former Premier League stars Clinton Morrison and Matthew Oakley, the latter of whom having represented Southampton in the 2003 final. They will quickly look to unsettle Jurgen Klopp’s men, and take advantage of the fact that this will be Liverpool’s fourth game in the space of 10 days.
The early kick-off on Saturday sees another fourth tier club face a member of the top-flight, with League Two play-off hopefuls Wycombe Wanderers take on struggling Aston Villa. The visitors are looking certain to be relegated from the Premier League having taken just eight points from their 20 outings thus far, and a failure to win here would only remove any confidence they may still have left. Wycombe have a small but effective squad and here may see the physical strength of striker Aaron Amadi-Holloway as their biggest weapon, while Aaron Pierre is an ever-present threat from set-pieces.
One noticeable aspect of the third round this season is the sheer lack of non-league clubs. Of the 32 that reached the first round, only Eastleigh remain, and they will very much fancy their chances of going one step further having been drawn against Championship bottom club Bolton Wanderers, who amid severe financial problems and budgetary constraints have only won two of their league matches so far this season. It would pile on the misery for Neil Lennon’s side should they lose this, and that is a very real possibility given that Eastleigh have emerged from nowhere to become one of the strongest teams outside the Football League over the past season and-a-half, with many of their squad having played at a higher level.
As the the holders and Premier League leaders Arsenal, they have a home tie against Sunderland, a team who they beat 3-1 in the league as recently as December. Black Cats manager Sam Allardyce has already hinted that he will make wholesale changes with a crucial Premier League match at Swansea City on the agenda just four days later, so the North London club should be expected to progress. Meanwhile, Manchester City are away to Norwich City, Louis van Gaal continues his search for a first trophy in charge of Manchester United as they take on 2014 semi-finalists Sheffield United, and as he aims to win this competition for a second time as Chelsea’s interim boss, Guus Hiddink sees his side welcome League One outfit Scunthorpe United to Stamford Bridge.
Potential banana skins see Stoke City go to in-form Doncaster Rovers, managerless Swansea City head to League Two promotion chasers Oxford United, and Bournemouth make the trip to St. Andrews to face Birmingham City, a venue where they won 8-0 on their last visit in October 2014. Brentford boss Dean Smith takes on Walsall – the club who he left just weeks ago to take up the vacancy in West London – in one of those ties that the FA Cup always seems to mysteriously throw up. The same could be said about the game between Leeds United and Rotherham United, where both managers face their former clubs.
Of the all Premier League meetings, the one that stands out most is the game between Tottenham and Leicester City, two sides that make up the current top four, and who also meet in the Premier League the following Wednesday, also at White Hart Lane. The hosts will be determined to win silverware again, which would be particularly fitting as 2016 marks 25 years since they won the last of their eight FA Cups.