It’s traditionally one of the most exciting dates in the English football calendar: the third round of the FA Cup, the oldest cup competition in the world, when the Premier League teams enter the fray. Upsets follow as lower-league teams are inspired by “the magic of the cup” to knock out more illustrious opponents.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of, but 2020-21’s FA Cup has been hit (like everything else) by the lingering threat of COVID-19, which has put several games in doubt and led to some postponements. Regardless, there’s plenty of action to keep soccer fans glued to the couch all weekend: we get you ready for the action with the state of the competition, the best games to build your viewing around and the most menacing minnows that are primed to shock their elite opponents.
The shadow of COVID-19 has hung over the FA Cup all season, with preliminary rounds involving non-league clubs impacted by crowd restrictions, through to National League team Notts County having to forfeit their fourth qualifying round tie against King’s Lynn Town in October due to a number of positive tests. And they were far from the only club who had to give up their place.
Unfortunately, the situation has got worse rather than better, and the third round has already been hit by a series of issues that threaten to wreak havoc on the fixture list not only this weekend, but in the weeks to come.
Southampton’s home tie against Shrewsbury Town has already been postponed due to a significant outbreak at the League One club, while Aston Villa’s all-Premier League clash against Liverpool on Friday goes ahead despite several positive tests for Aston Villa.
Villa are expected to play an U23 team, in a role reversal to last season’s Carabao Cup tie between the two sides when Jurgen Klopp’s team were away at the Club World Cup. Derby will send an U23 squad to Chorley because of several first-team players having to self-isolate, and Middlesbrough may have to postpone their game at Brentford after closing the club’s training ground because of COVID-19. Sheffield Wednesday have also had to close their training ground ahead of their tie at Exeter, and will be without their whole first-team coaching staff.
The FA has funded testing for the 44 non-Premier League clubs participating in round three and problems were anticipated. But solutions are in short supply due to the congested nature of the fixture list this season, caused by the campaign starting a month later than usual as a consequence of the pandemic.
Clubs must contest their tie if they can field 14 fit players, which can include youth-team players, so you may see several teams forced to take that option this weekend. The alternative is to postpone the tie and hope to be able reschedule, but all third round fixtures must be played before Jan. 23 — the date of the fourth round.
It means clubs have just two weeks to find a new date and some clubs simply do not have a spare match date. If games cannot be rearranged, the COVID-affected club must forfeit the tie — and that seems likely in some cases. — Mark Ogden
Viewing guide: Best games to watch all weekend
Need a quick review of what to watch and when? We’ve got you covered.
Aston Villa vs. Liverpool, Friday: When these two sides met at Villa Park back in October, Dean Smith’s side handed Jurgen Klopp’s men a 7-2 hammering, a match that summed up the unpredictable, unprecedented nature of this season. A rash of positive tests at Villa forced them to close their training ground Thursday, but the game goes ahead and you can expect Villa to field a team of kids rather than their star names. Liverpool will have little sympathy, having been forced to play Villa in the Carabao Cup in December 2019 while the first team was in Qatar for the Club World Cup, and losing 5-0. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 2:45 p.m. ET in the U.S.)
QPR vs. Fulham, Saturday: Fulham have been hit hard by COVID-19. Their last two Premier League matches have been postponed due to an outbreak at the club, and QPR will be hoping to knock over their west London rivals when the two meet. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET in the U.S.)
Everton vs. Rotherham, Saturday: Carlo Ancelotti is experiencing a rare silverware drought by his admittedly high standards, having last won a trophy at Bayern Munich in 2017. Everton are playing well in the Premier League and will be clear favourites to knock over Rotherham, who are second-from-bottom in the second-tier Championship. Rotherham have endured a tough season, and their own COVD crisis means they have played only once since Dec. 16. This offers them a chance for a free hit.(Stream live on ESPN+ at 7 a.m. ET in the U.S.)
Arsenal vs. Newcastle, Saturday: This is the eye-catching all-Premier League match up of the third round with Mikel Arteta’s rejuvenated Arsenal hosting Newcastle on Saturday evening. Newcastle last won a major trophy in 1955 and Steve Bruce has his hands full at St James’ Park with omnipresent uncertainty behind the scenes, but Arsenal are one of the form teams with three wins from three and head into this tie as FA Cup holders. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 12:30 p.m. ET in the U.S.)
Chelsea vs. Morecambe, Sunday: Chelsea have one point from their last three Premier League games and the pressure is on Frank Lampard to turn things around. Morecambe have ridden out their COVID-19 outbreak, having had their last two League Two matches postponed. But if ever there is a right time for the most monumental of FA Cup upsets for Morecambe, it’s now. Chelsea are misfiring in the Premier League and will be feeling the pressure on Sunday. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 8:30 a.m. ET in the U.S.)
Marine vs. Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday: This match is already etched in FA Cup history. Eight divisions separate Northern Premier League Division One North West club Marine from Premier League high-flyers Spurs, in the widest gap between two sides in the tournament’s long and rich history. Marine’s dugouts and warm-up kit will be sponsored by Jamie Carragher’s JC23 Foundation for this tie and the Merseyside club are selling virtual tickets for the clash after government restrictions prevented them from having supporters in the stands. This is the slippiest of banana skins for Spurs as they prepare to take on a team featuring hospital workers and teachers. (Stream live on ESPN+ at noon ET in the U.S.)
Stockport County vs. West Ham, Monday: West Ham are ticking along nicely under David Moyes, but the tournament produces a seismic shock result every season and it could be the Hammers’ turn. Stockport County sit fourth in the National League Premier and will be keen to get past a Premier League opponent in the final scheduled tie of the weekend. (Stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET in the U.S.) — Tom Hamilton