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Jan 4, 2013

Four to watch in the FA Cup

It's time, unfortunately, to take a break from the Premier League. Fortunately, however, silly friendlies aren't on offer this weekend. Instead it's that famous competition, the FA Cup.

- Mancini plays down Balotelli row - Cole, Hammers reunited

Of the 32 third-round matches, these four are worth watching: Swansea vs. Arsenal Arsenal fans will tell you they've already moved on from last week's 7-3 mauling of Newcastle, a result that flattered the Gunners. Tied after 70 minutes, the home team's fresher legs made the difference the rest of the way. Dropping two points at Southampton on Tuesday left Arsenal four points adrift of fourth place, and its next two league fixtures come against Manchester City and Chelsea. Trouble. With Arsenal seriously facing the prospect of not playing in the Champions League next season, and scheduled to meet Bayern Munich in the second round of this season's competition, plus already having been eliminated in the League Cup by Bradford, the FA Cup represents the only (semi-) realistic chance of ending an eight-year trophy drought. But call Swansea Arsenal's bogey team, at least of late. Swansea won a 3-2 thriller in Wales last January and blanked Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates in December in Arsenal's worst league outing of the season. Michu, Wayne Routledge, Jonathan de Guzman and Pablo Hernandez -- three of them happening to be summer signings -- have all flourished under new manager Michael Laudrup; Michu was unlucky not to add to his goal tally against Aston Villa on Tuesday. Aiding Arsenal, though, is Swansea's involvement in the League Cup semifinals. Swansea visits Chelsea in the first leg Wednesday, so they might be a little preoccupied, especially since the team has never appeared in a major cup final. (Sorry, we're not counting the Welsh Cup.) Laudrup's lineup on Sunday may thus be missing some regulars. After the stinging loss at Bradford, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is expected to field a strong team, which would presumably include man of the moment Theo Walcott. Prediction: 2-1 Arsenal. Manchester City vs. Watford Two days ago, the overarching theme of Watford's visit to Manchester City centered on the meeting of two Italian managers and former international teammates: Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Mancini. Zola's second stint as a manager in England is going much better than did the first at West Ham, with Watford overachieving in the Championship in sixth, the final playoff spot. But Mario Balotelli, as he so often does, intervened. Balotelli, an Italian himself, clashed with Mancini in training on Thursday after harshly tackling teammate Scott Sinclair. England's redtops predictably sensationalized the incident, given the player involved and the photos that emerged, and it was the pre-eminent topic in Mancini's Friday news conference.

"We were playing a game and Mario kicked his teammate," Mancini told reporters. "I said to him, 'Go inside, leave the pitch.' He said 'No,' and I took his shirt and pushed him out of the pitch. This is what really happened. Nothing special." The Citizens won't be unsettled because of Balotelli. They're used to it. More vital is the loss of midfielder Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations and injured striker Sergio Aguero. Aguero and Carlos Tevez form City's top strike partnership, with Edin Dzeko and Tevez -- Saturday's probable duo up front – not clicking quite as well. Watford (or should that be Udinese?) employs a pleasing style under Zola, and no team in the Championship has scored more goals away from home. Forwards Matej Vydra and Troy Deeney have hit double digits in goals in the league, a slight worry for a City defense that hasn't been as assured as it was last campaign. Prediction: 2-1 Manchester City West Ham vs. Manchester United No Wayne Rooney for Manchester United? No problem. Rooney is out for a further two weeks with his knee injury, ruling him out of Saturday's game at Upton Park but also against Liverpool at Old Trafford on Jan. 13. Fortunately for boss Alex Ferguson, he has more than capable reinforcements. Javier Hernandez and Robin van Persie have jelled instantly, with the Dutchman playing behind Hernandez like Rooney played behind van Persie. Van Persie and Hernandez are certain to start against Liverpool, a more pivotal game, so will Fergie rest the pair and opt for a lineup similar to the one that coasted past West Bromwich Albion 2-0 on Dec. 29? West Ham hopes so.

"Whatever changes he makes, there will be 11 internationals out against us tomorrow," West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, Ferguson's pal, told the club website. "It will be a hugely difficult game but one we are pleased to be involved in, even though it's in the third round when we'd perhaps have liked a lesser draw than Manchester United at home."

The Hammers, doing fine in their first season back in the Premier League, should look to the recent past in cup competitions for inspiration. West Ham is 3-1-1 against United in their last five cup matches, memorably thrashing the Red Devils 4-0 in the League Cup in 2010 when U.S. international Jonathan Spector netted twice. And when they met in the league in Manchester in November, United wasn't entirely comfortable in a 1-0 win. The return of hero Joe Cole is a further boost for West Ham, mentally more than anything else at this stage, and Kevin Nolan, one of the best headers in England, is back from a suspension. But Allardyce is still without the services of two key performers: striker Andy Carroll and midfielder Mohamed Diame. Prediction: 3-1 Manchester United

Middlesbrough vs. Hastings United The draw for the third round proper of the FA Cup always leaves fans scrolling, wondering whether any minnows are pitted against one of the bigger boys. While Middlesbrough isn't in the Premier League, Boro sits fourth in the Championship, owns the second-best home record in the division and reached the FA Cup semifinals as recently as 2006. They're plenty big enough for Hastings United, which is flirting with relegation in the Ryman Premier Division, England's seventh tier. Even as low as that on the ladder, some in the squad have gotten their feet wet at more prestigious clubs: According to the team's website, defender Elliott Cox began his career at QPR, defender Josh Jirbandey had a trial with Borussia Dortmund, and striker Ian Daly was part of Manchester City's youth system. Starting keeper Matt Armstrong-Ford, the son of tennis umpire Gerry Armstrong, once worked as a naked butler to make ends meet. "I turn up to a party and serve drinks for a couple of hours, just wearing collars, cuffs and a little pinafore," he told the Sunday Times. "Yes, you could say it was something a little bit different." For a couple of hours Saturday, Armstrong-Ford and teammates will be experiencing something different. With the exception of Middlesbrough supporters, all of England will be rooting for them. Prediction: 3-0 Middlesbrough