From a blockbuster tie between Man City and Arsenal to Tottenham’s trophy dream and Wrexham’s Hollywood story, we pick out the FA Cup fourth-round talking points…
Is it time for Pep’s apprentice to become the master?
Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola have been friends for more than two decades, colleagues at Barcelona and City and now, for the first time, title rivals.
Arteta’s links to Guardiola predate even before his professional debut. Both progressed through Barcelona’s La Masia youth system – where despite being 11 years Pep’s junior, the now-Arsenal boss was already weighed down by comparisons to the legendary midfielder and their remarkably similar styles of play.
Guardiola took the teenager under his wing, offering him guidance and striking up a chord which would last for more than two decades, to the present day.
But while Pep had gone on to make the middle of the Nou Camp pitch his own, Arteta – stuck behind the generational duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta – had to look elsewhere to forge his professional career. And in 2019, after two years serving as Pep’s assistant at Manchester City, that same instinct led him to step out into the light again and become a head coach of his own at Arsenal.
Just over three years later, Arteta has achieved the uphill task of making the Gunners worthy opponents for his former employers. The title race will be put on hold for a week as attention turns to the FA Cup and Arsenal’s attempts to move closer to a domestic double at the expense of his old boss.
Arteta knows Guardiola’s City better than anyone, but they have had a handle on his Arsenal side ever since he left the Etihad. City have won all five of the Premier League meetings between the two sides, scoring 12 goals in the process.
In general terms, Arsenal have steadily improved under Arteta. But on a personal level, there has rarely been much indication he would escape the shadow Guardiola has often cast upon him.
Arsenal cut the gap to the Champions League spots to two points last season, but still finished 24 behind the champions. But with half of this season’s league campaign done, he is painting a new picture at the top of the Premier League table.
Now, Arsenal have the chance to assert that change when they face City for the first time this season. The FA Cup is where Arteta has earned his only joy against his old boss. Arsenal’s semi-final win in 2020 set them on course to lift the trophy in his first season at the Emirates. Now, he’s back for more.
Victory in City’s own back yard would only underline the job Arteta is doing in North London, and add to the feeling Arsenal can finally fight back against City’s domestic superiority over them – and Guardiola’s over his former apprentice.
Is the draw opening up for trophy-starved Tottenham?
Tottenham’s trophy drought – now stretching back 15 years – is well-documented, but this year’s FA Cup may represent one of their best opportunities during that decade and a half to finally bring some silverware back to their corner of north London.
A trip to Deepdale to take on a Preston side that lie 11th in the Championship isn’t the easiest tie Spurs could have been handed but it’s certainly not the hardest, as many of their fellow Premier League sides will attest to.
By the time Antonio Conte’s side take to the field in Lancashire, one of Arsenal or Manchester City will already have been eliminated following their fourth-round meeting at the Etihad on Friday. Out-of-form Liverpool also face a daunting task at Brighton – the same team that thumped them 3-0 earlier this month – while Chelsea and Newcastle have already been knocked out.
As a result, the draw has opened up kindly for Spurs. With Conte’s side out of the Carabao Cup, 14 points behind league-leaders Arsenal in the Premier League and rank outsiders to triumph in the Champions League, there is no excuse for not doing all they can to lift the FA Cup and claim that elusive trophy.
Reds return to scene of nightmare defeat
Jurgen Klopp labelled Liverpool’s 3-0 loss at Brighton in the Premier League in January the worst defeat of his managerial career, which is quite some statement when you consider that spans 22 years and 1000 games.
However, such was the Reds’ humbling on the south coast that day that few could really argue with that assessment from the German, who takes his side back to the Amex on Sunday for managerial contest No 10001 and a chance for swift revenge.
Liverpool saw off Wolves 1-0 in their third-round replay to set up Sunday lunchtime’s return trip to Brighton, however, Klopp has been keen to avoid using the R-word in the buildup.
“We wanted to go to the next round and we knew already Brighton was the opponent,” he said after that Molineux victory. “My job is not to be big mouthed, but the idea is when we go there, that we try to play better than last time.”
Which should not be hard, although Klopp and Co will need to do more than simply just play better this time around to get a result against a team who have caused them a multitude of issues in recent fixtures, scoring three times in each of their past two encounters.
As the holders, though, and with this competition their best chance of silverware this season, Liverpool will have added motivation to ensure this weekend’s visit to the south coast is one to remember, rather than forget, on this occasion.
Foxes cannot afford another embarrassing defeat to a lower-league neighbour
Leicester’s FA Cup defence ended at this stage last season with a 4-1 thrashing at local rivals Nottingham Forest, who were in the Championship at the time. Foxes boss Brendan Rodgers called it “embarrassing” and, in his damning post-match review, criticised his players’ lack of hunger and desire.
Twelve months on, Leicester go to another Midlands neighbour in the fourth round of the Cup in Walsall. The rivalry is nowhere near as hot – but Rodgers will be desperate to see a highly-charged performance from his players, who are once again in need of a cup run to buck their disappointing Premier League form.
The draw has been kind, with Leicester following up a trip to Gillingham, where they edged past League Two’s then-bottom club, with an away day at Walsall, who are 11th in the fourth tier. But with that win at Priestfield being their only success in their last seven, Saturday looks far from straightforward for the visitors.
Walsall have scored last-minute winners in the past two rounds, so will keep fighting until the final whistle, and in boss Michael Flynn they have a manager who has experience of knocking Leicester out of the cup with a League Two side, having done that in 2019 when he was at Newport County. Rodgers will be hoping his squad have learnt their lessons from last season…
Can Ince cause a shock on Old Trafford return?
“It’s fate we’re doing it again.”
Those were the words of Reading boss Paul Ince as he prepares to return to Manchester United in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.
Ince spent six successful years at Old Trafford as a player but heads to his former club looking to knock them out of the competition he won twice in 1990 and 1994.
Incredibly, Reading are preparing to face United in the FA Cup for the fourth time in 10 years but Ince, who scored 27 goals in 260 appearances during his time in Manchester, is relishing the occasion.
“I had a great time at United and won a lot of trophies,” he said. “To pit your wits against one of the best managers in the world in Erik ten Hag is something I didn’t envisage, but that is the romance of the cup, isn’t it?”
Ince lost at Old Trafford as Blackburn manager in the 2008/09 Carabao Cup quarter-finals and will have to inspire Reading to their first win over United since 1927 if they are to make it through to the FA Cup fifth round.
Reading have drawn seven and lost 14 matches with the 12-time winners since then – including their last six. United, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their previous 14 FA Cup home games (W12 D2).
All the signs point towards a comfortable evening for Saturday’s hosts, but with a motivated Ince returning to his old stomping ground, don’t rule out a giant-killing.
Boro boys want more cup glory
Stevenage boss Steve Evans described their incredible third-round upset of Aston Villa as a victory to “tell the grandkids” – and will count on his players who have “hearts the size of Big Ben” to deliver again at Stoke.
The League Two promotion hopefuls stunned Villa with an amazing late turnaround by scoring twice in three minutes to produce a classic FA Cup upset.
Boro have won all three of their away ties in this run and are now aiming to become the first side in the competition’s history to win in the first, second, third and fourth rounds on the road.
Key to their upset at Villa Park was their use of substitutes to take a more attacking approach late in the game. Crucially, they were still within touching distance of the hosts after a superb defensive performance.
“The plan all week was make sure we were in the game at 75 minutes,” said Evans. Then he unleashed the match-winners from the bench.
Dean Campbell’s fresh legs won the penalty off Leander Dendoncker, which also led to the Villa man’s sending off, before sub Jamie Reid dispatched the spot kick. Campbell then struck the improbable winner to keep Stevenage dreaming.
Stoke, languishing in the bottom half of the Championship, must not underestimate their lower-league opponents, who will aim to replicate their dream day at Villa.
Are there more Hollywood storylines for Wrexham?
If silver-screen stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney had written a script for Wrexham’s third-round trip to Coventry, it would’ve probably featured an abundance of goals, penalties, red cards and a fairytale ending for the non-league visitors.
Sometimes, reality lives up to the story. That 4-3 win at the CBS Arena has allowed the National League leaders the chance to do it all again against a Sheffield United side visiting the Racecourse Ground barely 18 months since they were a Premier League side themselves.
The elephant in the room and a fair criticism of Wrexham’s position as perennial minnows at this stage is that it is entirely thanks to Reynolds and McElhenney’s money that they have reached the fourth round for the first time since the year 2000.
But even so, they have had to operate within limits. Star striker Paul Mullin was lured from Cambridge to the National League – but that was from League Two, a drop of one division. Beating Championship sides back-to-back would still be some achievement.
And why not? The Red Dragons have won all 16 of their home games this season, last tasting defeat in North Wales in last season’s play-offs. For the last non-league side left in this season’s tournament, there might yet be another Hollywood story to tell.
Can FA Cup-winning pedigree help Kompany and Burnley?
Quite rightly, Vincent Kompany is attracting many admirers for his work at Burnley. After relegation and the departure of long-time manager Sean Dyche, it was always going to be a tough ask to reinvigorate the club.
But Kompany’s Clarets are top of the Championship, with attentions now turning to the FA Cup – a competition in which Burnley have the potential to cause a few upsets.
It’s a competition former defender Kompany knows well, having won the trophy twice. The first victory in the 2010/11 season saw City win their first major trophy in 35 years, sparking the most successful period in the club’s history.
Kompany then won the FA Cup as captain in the 2018/19 season, the year Man City won the domestic treble. He is a manager laden with winners medals and knows how to win trophies. It has served him well so far – Burnley breezed to a convincing 4-2 win against Bournemouth in the third round.
Now, they face League One side Ipswich that themselves are pushing for a promotion spot. It will not be an easy task, but an in-form and confident Burnley with Kompany at the helm will be hoping to book their spot in the fifth round draw.
Chance for Marsch to fine-tune
It’s close to clicking, or so Jesse Marsch says, with Leeds 15th in the Premier League table – one point above the drop zone. The debate rages on as to whether cup competitions provide welcome respite or unwanted distraction for struggling sides. It probably differs from club to club. But for Marsch this is a chance to get his side firing on all cylinders.
Shot-shy Leeds have had three different players (Willy Gnonto, Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo) score twice in FA Cup competition this season. They badly need that form to translate in the Premier League. Will Marsch go full tilt? Doubtful. But his side have looked devoid of confidence in recent weeks – certainly lacking cutting edge. They’ve managed the fewest league wins (since August 27) of any side in the top-flight.
There is a chance to be slightly more experimental with the line up – Leeds fans have been calling for a first sighting of club-record signing Georginio Rutter – but momentum is the key here. League One side Accrington Stanley have nothing to lose, no point to prove. The pressure is on Leeds to deliver and they need something to ignite their, so far, underwhelming campaign. Perhaps some gentle fine-tuning is all it will take.
Fulham out to settle old score
One of the Premier League’s surprise packages. Fulham have finally transformed from a yo-yo club into a fully fledged top-flight outfit this term, complete with one of the division’s most potent strikers in Aleksandar Mitrovic.
It’s taken the London club a few gos to get to a position of stability but they are now riding high enough in the league to turn their attention to cup matters without running the risk of such interruption derailing their season. 31 points from 21 games is an excellent return for a newly promoted side – they sit above both Liverpool and neighbours Chelsea in the table. Usurping the latter will have provided particular satisfaction.
All of that, promising as it is, will be incidental this weekend. Fulham face the Championship’s ninth placed side Sunderland, having been eliminated from seven of their last eight fourth round ties. The FA Cup has not exactly been a happy hunting ground.
While for Sunderland this game marks their first appearance in the competition’s fourth round since 2014-15 when they knocked out, you guessed it, Fulham. Perhaps there is an old score to settle. This was once an all-Premier League fixture, so can Tony Mowbray’s side prove they can mix it with some of the best as they also battle to enter the Championship’s promotion picture? The outcome might be harder to call than it looks on paper, particularly if Fulham boss Marco Silva opts to give one or two key players a rest.
Can Jones boost waning momentum or will McCarthy turn tide on debut?
Nathan Jones has endured a whirlwind two months in charge at St Mary’s.
Southampton fans chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing” at the Welshman merely four games into his reign after a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.
However, relief came against the most unlikely opponents, knocking Pep Guardiola’s juggernauts out of the Carabao Cup – before beating Everton 2-1 to end a run of six successive league defeats.
Summer signing Sekou Mara has provided additional optimism with impressive displays in cup ties, while James Ward-Prowse has also bucked his side’s rock-bottom league status with prolific form in a more advanced role.
Indeed, Saints’ fans were cheering Jones from the touchlines going into their cup tie at Newcastle on Tuesday, but Southampton’s revival has waned with two defeats on the bounce and a defeat against Championship strugglers Blackpool would derail support.
Meanwhile, Blackpool’s campaign has followed a similar pattern, wit the club axing head coach Michael Appleton and appointing Mick McCarthy last week after tumbling into the danger zone.
McCarthy will be looking for a memorable debut in the dugout as a springboard for improvement. Indeed, there’s reason for optimism: the Tangerines eliminated top-flight Nottingham Forest emphatically in the third round.
FA Cup fourth-round schedule in full
Manchester City vs Arsenal – Friday, 8pm
Accrington vs Leeds – Saturday, 12.30pm
Walsall vs Leicester – Saturday, 12.30pm
Blackburn vs Birmingham – Saturday, 3pm
Bristol City vs West Brom – Saturday, 3pm
Fulham vs Sunderland – Saturday, 3pm
Ipswich vs Burnley – Saturday, 3pm
Luton vs Grimsby – Saturday, 3pm
Sheffield Wednesday vs Fleetwood – Saturday, 3pm
Southampton vs Blackpool – Saturday, 3pm
Preston vs Tottenham – Saturday, 6pm
Manchester United vs Reading – Saturday, 8pm
Brighton vs Liverpool – Sunday, 1.30pm
Stoke vs Stevenage – Sunday, 2pm
Wrexham vs Sheffield United – Sunday, 4.30pm
Derby vs West Ham – Monday, 7.45pm