Friday 13 February ~
The FA Cup is at least having a sliver of its tradition restored this weekend. The combined rights package between ITV and Setanta has forced some unwelcome changes to the format of England's favourite tournament, but thankfully, with the decreasing number of ties, the broadcasters have not chosen to air a match tonight. Perhaps they are superstitious. There will of course be a game on Monday night, but it's so overdue that it doesn't really count. Cardiff travel to Arsenal for their fourth-round replay, which, due to a combination of shoddy weather and the demands of our televisual hosts means that the quarter-final draw on Sunday afternoon will read something like "Arsenal/Cardiff or Burnley v Team X".
Away from that confusion, there are actually several games which promise good old fashioned entertainment. The first in the TV guide is Fulham's midday encounter with Swansea tomorrow. The last meeting in the competition between the teams in 1995 resulted in a 7-0 drubbing for the Welsh, remarkable given that at the time the Swans were the side a division above their opponents. Now with roles reversed, they need look no further for inspiration of what an “underdog” can achieve, a tag which their manager, Roberto Martinez, has stated he is only too happy to have. There is no particular pressure on them. Lose, and he can put the Cup to bed and concentrate on promotion. Continue their fine form tomorrow however, and the boost in confidence might help to propel his side to a spot in the play-offs.
In contrast, it seems that Fulham boss Roy Hodgson doesn't place such faith in the potential for cup upsets, offering instead a dash of realism befitting his frank demeanour. "I think if Swansea were in the Premier League they might not be in the top four, and they might be closer to the bottom," he said in the manner of a grandfather stating stated the blindingly obvious. Danny Murphy, Fulham midfielder and a former cup winner with Liverpool, has compared this Fulham side to that of last year's winners Portsmouth. Given the precarious position which the south coast side find themselves in now, and the fact that they were last month eliminated by Swansea in the last round, it's not a comparison that Fulham supporters will appreciate.
This fixture might serve up a fast-paced encounter on a zippy Liberty Stadium surface hopefully glistening bright in the early-Spring sunshine. It could be a game bursting with goals, tough challenges and the roar of 20,000 supporters revelling in the party atmosphere. A word of warning, though; Swansea began their current 15-match unbeaten run with a streak of eight straight draws and they and Fulham lead the line for single-point collections in their respective leagues. Indeed, Fulham are on target for the lowest ever goals aggregate in one season in the top division. Should a disappointing anticlimax occur, play a game instead: Tally the number of references you hear to Valentines Day and the "romance of the FA Cup" across the coverage on the box. Chris Towers