FA Cup Fourth Round Preview
Road to Wembley: FA Cup 4th Round Shocks Incoming?
The fourth round of the FA Cup may not be surrounded by the same level of anticipation as its predecessor, but there is still the strong likelihood of a lower league team playing Premier League opposition. This year’s fourth round draw proved no exception, but of course the standout tie is an all-Premier League affair.
Can Arsenal Stop In-form United?
No other tie could have been designated as the headlining Friday evening kick-off in good conscience. The youngest generation of fans from both clubs have witnessed their teams embark on declines in recent years, but with Arsenal and Manchester United breathing new life into their late attempts at snatching a top-four spot, all concerned will be looking at this tie as a potential catalyst to better days.
As a part of the squad that beat Arsenal in the 1999 semi-finals, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be naturally eager to transfer the spirit of that famous 2-1 extra time win at Villa Park into his players before kickoff. A sizeable number of United fans will still identify it as the most ‘complete’ team performance of the Ferguson era, bar the Champions League final that followed shortly after, and Solskjaer’s experience of being a serial winner with United as a player has unquestionably changed the mood around Old Trafford.
Since the turn of the century, the sides have met a further six times in the FA Cup, with United claiming three wins to Arsenal’s two. Only two of those six games have been played at the semi-final stage or later, with the 2005 final being the only head-to-head 21st century FA Cup tie to end level. Preceding that was the 2004 semi-final, which United managed to win 1-0. However, it was Arsenal’s subsequent finish to an unbeaten Premier League season that really stole the headlines, and firmly eclipsed United’s 3-0 slaughter of lower-league Millwall in the final.
Removing the 2005 final from the equation, United have won three of the last four head-to-head FA Cup encounters, with all of their wins being accompanied by a clean sheet. However, it is Arsenal who won the last FA Cup meeting, with the Gunners eliminating David Moyes’ limp outfit en route to a winning final in 2014. In terms of recent head-to-head encounters across all competitions, United are unbeaten in three matches against Arsenal, completing a league double over the Gunners last season, as Jose Mourinho once again maintained his excellent record over Arsene Wenger.
Without that touchline combination, this tie has an altogether more uncertain feel, but it will be a fascinating clash of experience versus character, and of science versus philosophy. Practically speaking, Emery’s superior experience of winning trophies combined with home advantage gives Arsenal a distinct edge. In the Premier League, Arsenal are still unbeaten at home since the opening weekend of the season, winning their last five home league matches on the spin, and by a margin of multiple goals in four of them. That said, United have looked much tighter at the back since the New Year, and Solskjaer’s run has been nothing short of spectacular, making this an encounter few will want to predict.
Bees Finally on Their Knees?
Several of this year’s fourth round ties feature teams separated by two leagues or more. At least one of them is bound to produce a shock result, or at least a gutsy draw that makes a mockery of all the odds. Amongst these David versus Goliath ties is a London derby with the potential for high drama.
The fourth round has been unchartered territory for Barnet since 2007/08. Now the only surviving non-league team remaining in the competition, the Bees are only one victory over a rival hive away from making it to the fifth round for the first time ever. For Barnet’s third round hero Shaquille Coulthirst, scoring the winning penalty against Sheffield United was a particularly potent life-affirming moment, coming years after his failure to make the transition from trainee to reserve at Tottenham.
A 4-0 league defeat to Braintree Town in their last outing has brought Barnet’s exhilarated fans back down to earth, but given the effort put into the third round tie, Barnet could be forgiven for looking slightly flat of late. Nonetheless, they are still unbeaten in four of their last five matches, and with Brentford only ending a 15-match winless away run in the Championship back on 19 January (against relegation-threatened Rotherham), history beckons for Darren Currie’s men.
Of course, Brentford are not without their danger men. Neal Maupay is the obvious threat to another Barnet party, and prior to Brentford’s win at Rotherham, the Frenchman had been directly involved in more goals (15 goals and six assists) than any other Championship player.
Boro Next to be Exiled?
Of course, the big shock of the third round came at Rodney Parade, with League Two Newport ending the FA Cup hopes of a below-par Leicester City side. The Exiles’ reward, for a display of limitless endeavour and great composure, is a trip to a stadium that is Premier League in quality, and host to a team challenging to rubber stamp that status in the spring.
Middlesbrough are obvious favourites by a considerable distance, but the Teessiders will still do well to keep a chain on Jamille Matt, who has now scored on five of his last six FA Cup starts over a two-year period. With Newport losing their last four away games by a single-goal margin, their first order of business will be to play with the same defensive resilience that utterly frustrated Leicester throughout the third round.
Ultimately, a draw would be more than just a moral victory for Newport. The club has endured financial hell, characterised by near-misses with liquidation and long periods of homelessness, but by forcing a replay at Rodney Parade, they would add significantly to their gate funds from the original tie and be confident of another upset on home turf.
As for Middlesbrough, they are sure to play with a bit more licence to roam. However, they are not in the habit of ignoring the basics under Tony Pulis, and as of the run-up to their last home outing against Millwall, the Teessiders had conceded a Championship-low average of 0.61 home goals per match.
Will the clash of Arsenal and United do justice to their glorious past? Can a non-league side feature in the fifth round for the second time in three seasons? Find all the latest FA Cup spread betting markets on Sporting Index!