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Romance rationed as big clubs reluctantly embrace FA Cup

For most managers and owners, the oldest football competition in the world has become little more than an unwelcome distraction

Maurizio Sarri's (at right in photo) Chelsea have home-ground advantage against Nottingham Forest. Southampton's new manager Ralph Hasenhuettl (at left) would probably consider it a blessing if the Saints were to lose to Championship side Derby County.


ONE of the traditional highlights of the British sporting year takes place this weekend when the major clubs join the FA Cup in the third round but, with every passing season, its famed "romance" appears the preserve of die-hard traditionalists.

English Premier League (EPL) and the second-tier Championship teams join the lower league survivors over four days of action, starting with Tranmere Rovers against Tottenham Hotspur on Friday night (Saturday, 3.45am kick-off, Singapore time).

For most managers and owners, if not players and fans, the oldest football competition in the world has become little more than an unwelcome distraction from their league aspirations and it is now routine to see the reserve teams take to the field.

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Southampton's triumph as a second-division club in 1976 when they toppled Manchester United at Wembley remains the greatest day in the club's history.

Yet, battling against possible relegation from the EPL, the Saints' (Southampton's nickname) new manager Ralph Hasenhuettl would probably consider it a blessing if they were to lose to Championship side Derby County.

Crystal Palace against Grimsby Town has the look of a classic giant-killing act but if the fourth-tier side were to somehow pull it off, the Eagles' (Crystal Palace's nickname) owners and manager Roy Hodgson would no doubt get over the embarrassment quite quickly and be grateful that they could focus all their energies on avoiding relegation.

The same rationale applies to half the sides in the Championship, where the promised land of the EPL remains tantalisingly close and where a run of FA Cup games - with potential replays to deal with if the matches are drawn - is absolutely the last thing they want in an already-gruelling campaign.

Spare a thought too for Brighton and Bournemouth, two EPL clubs who have spent most of their existence in the lower leagues highlighted with memorable FA Cup moments.

With both teams desperate to stay in the top flight, they face each other in the FA Cup on Saturday (8.30pm, Singapore time).

While neither of the two managers will publicly admit to wanting to lose the game, they will almost certainly pick a starting 11 that will show they do not particularly want to win.

For some teams, however, the FA Cup already looks like not only their only chance of silverware but their only real focus to a drifting season.

Everton, who ended a 14-year barren spell by winning the Cup back in 1984, are secure in the upper-mid table of the EPL and look destined to stay there for the rest of the season, neither pushing the top six but equally in no danger of relegation. A good FA Cup run could really lift the mood around Goodison Park - something that may yet be desperately needed should Liverpool go on to win the league - but it would still be a surprise if coach Marco Silva put out his strongest side against fourth-tier leaders Lincoln City.

Woking from England's minor leagues pulled off one of the all-time shocks when they beat West Bromwich Albion 4-2 away in 1991 when their hat-trick hero Tim Buzaglo was famously carried off the pitch shoulder high - by the Albion fans.

Would it feel the same if they beat a predominantly reserve Watford team this weekend?

Paradoxically though, despite its diminishing appeal since the establishment of the EPL and the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup has become even more dominated by the big clubs than when it was something they threw everything at.

When Chelsea beat Manchester United at Wembley at last season's final in May, it meant that the Blues (Chelsea's nickname) and Arsenal had featured in a remarkable 17 of the last 26 finals. In that time, they have won the trophy 15 times between them, with Arsenal winning eight titles while Chelsea emerged victorious on seven occasions.

With Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City also successful, the only "outsider" triumphs in the EPL era have been Portsmouth in 2008 and Wigan in 2013. Naturally, the bookies favour one of the EPL's superpowers to claim the FA Cup again this season.

Manchester United should have few problems getting past an out-of-form Reading at Old Trafford on Saturday in what is likely to be interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's fifth win in a row. Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are heavy favourites at home to Rotherham United, while Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea also have home-ground advantage against Nottingham Forest.

Arsenal face a tricky away tie at Blackpool, while EPL leaders Liverpool - still smarting from a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on Thursday - round up the FA Cup third-round action with a trip to face Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday night (Tuesday 3.45am, Singapore time). REUTERS