Game to watch – Preston v Arsenal
The last thing Arsenal need right now is a visit to in-form Preston (unbeaten in two), especially after the news that Francis Coquelin will miss the next three-four weeks with injury. But at least it will force Arsene Wenger to pair Granit Xhaka with Aaron Ramsey, a combination that many fans have been itching to see, though personally I was unimpressed when they debuted their collaboration against Basel. It’s Arsenal in the FA Cup so expect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, expect Rob Holding, expect Carl Jenkinson, expect Kieran Gibbs, expect a glimpse of two of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and any other promising youngsters with a surfeit of names. Here at Football365 we are largely dreaming of a return for Danny Welbeck, and Matt Stead is threatening to do 16 Conclusions solely on Dat Guy.
As Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham are at home to lower-league opposition and Manchester City travel to West Ham for a Premier League reserve fixture, the only top-six side seriously worth watching in the FA Cup this weekend are Arsenal. The bad news for fans of a shock is that the Gunners really do have a phenomenal record against lower-league opposition, with Arsene Wenger only losing once to a lowly club (Blackburn, 2013) in the FA Cup. But Preston are fresh from a 1-0 win over Burton Albion, so who knows?
Player to watch – Marcus Rashford
Trying to predict FA Cup line-ups is a mug’s game but if Marcus Rashford does not start against Reading in the FA Cup after coming off the bench and inspiring Manchester United to victory against West Ham on Monday (and being named our Early Winner), then when will he ever start his first game since November?
“The biggest trust I give him is when I told you that I don’t want another striker. I don’t want one. Why? Because I have Rashford,” said Jose Mourinho this week, but the young Englishman now deserves to see those words being followed by actions. Pick him and pick him as a striker; surely Zlatan Ibrahimovic has earned a rest?
Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata as a ‘reserve’ front three? Things have changed at Old Trafford of late…
Team to watch – Liverpool
Step forward all those players Jurgen Klopp did not trust to face Sunderland – step forward Alberto Moreno, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ovie Ejaria, Kevin Stewart, Divock Origi and yes, step forward Loris Karius, to prove that the Reds do in fact have a significant squad and are not trying to win the title with 14 players like it’s 1981. With a Capital One Cup semi-final looming in midweek, we assume Klopp will take no risks with his first-team players, but they need to be wary of a Plymouth side lying second in the League Two table.
This could be worth watching purely for another look at 17-year-old Ben Woodburn, but the best guesses put him on the bench while the likes of Stewart (laughably valued in the £10-12m mark) lead a Liverpool side that should get plenty of support from a packed Anfield. How they fare on that stage may well decide whether they face Southampton later in the week; with Liverpool just 180 minutes from Wembley, it’s the League Cup that must take serious priority. This one should hopefully be just for fun.
Managers to watch – Marco Silva and Paul Clement
In a lovely twist of fate, the Premier League’s two newest managers are facing each other and neither will surely dare make a raft of changes to their Hull or Swansea sides. Nobody wants to start with a defeat, even in a competition that both really could do without, so we could see that rarity of the modern game – an FA Cup tie that means a whole lot to both managers. Even though those managers are in charge of the teams sitting 19th and 20th in the Premier League.
Hull v Swansea does sound like one of those FA Cup ties that we should all ignore because this kind of fixture happens on a weekly basis, but this will have an edge. We saw a glimpse of what Clement could do for the Swans in midweek, but this time his name is above the door.
While the BBC are trying to get you excited about Stourbridge or Sutton United, our unashamedly Premier League-centric eyes will be trained on the touchline at a practically deserted KCOM Stadium to see whether Silva is one of those fancy foreign bosses who likes to sit on their haunches. That’s just how we roll.
Andre Gray v Papy Djilobodji
Whisper it but Djilobodji has not been quite so gut-wrenchingly awful as we may have reasonably expected for Sunderland this season. Until he met Andre Gray, that is. The local newspaper gave him a 3/10 for his performance as Sunderland were battered by an Andre Gray hat-trick last Saturday; they noted that he was ‘at fault for the first and second goals’. At least he will have the support of John O’Shea, awarded a 4/10 after switching to defence ‘where he struggled all afternoon’. Oh dear.
The good news for the Sunderland defenders is that they are facing Mr Gray away from Turf Moor and he has not scored away from Turf Moor since a goal at relegated Charlton on the final day of last season. The bad news is that even if they harness Gray and his teammates this time, their only prize will be another FA Cup tie they don’t need as they fight against relegation.
Can you tell we hate FA Cup weekend yet?
European game to watch – Villarreal v Barcelona
The last time Villarreal played at home in La Liga, they destroyed Atletico Madrid 3-0 so this one is absolutely worth watching, if only to say ‘is that really Alex Pato?’, ‘didn’t Jonathan Dos Santos used to play for Barcelona?’ and ‘is that Alfred N’Diaye and didn’t he once play for Sunderland in the really sh*t years than came before these really sh*t years?’. Villarreal are fourth and will provide serious opposition to a Barcelona side that have not lost since they visited Manchester City in early November.
With Real Madrid playing at home against Granada and already holding a three-point lead and a game in hand over Barcelona, Luis Enrique’s men can ill-afford another slip-up; the bad news is that Lionel Messi has scored a paltry nine in 18 games against Villarreal. They’re is bogey side.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
Spurs fan Mike Dean will referee their game vs Aston Villa on Sunday in the FA Cup… https://t.co/0kwyfHKHy8
— Oddschanger (@Oddschanger) January 4, 2017
Ten live matches to watch (if you’re Daniel Storey)
West Ham v Man City (Friday, 7.55pm, BBC1)
Real Madrid v Granada (Saturday, 12pm, Sky Sports 2)
Man United v Reading (Saturday, 12.30pm, BT Sport 2)
Preston v Arsenal (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 2)
Real Sociedad v Sevilla (Saturday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Udinese v Inter Milan (Sunday, 11.10am, BT Sports 3)
Liverpool v Plymouth Argyle (Sunday, 1.30pm, BT Sport 2)
Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa (Sunday, 4pm, BBC1)
Villarreal v Barcelona (Sunday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 2)
Juventus v Bologna (Sunday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 3)
Editor to watch – Sarah Winterburn