We all enjoy feasting on football over the festive period, but the congestion of the last fortnight has forced a dagger into the heart of the FA Cup third round. The amount of injuries picked up by Premier League players recently is no surprise and no joke either; league seasons have been put in jeopardy. That extends to EFL clubs too, whose own schedules have been punishing.
In this context, widespread changes to starting XIs are inevitable this weekend. Chris Wilder has already apologised in advance for making 11 changes to his team for the match against AFC Fylde, and many more will do the same. It would be surprising if any top-flight side made fewer than five changes.
But rather than increase the chance of upsets, it might well reduce it. If EFL clubs are also going to rest players after the Christmas rush, Premier League clubs have far deeper squads than them and their starting XIs will contain highly-paid players who will be desperate to impress and break into the league team.
One Premier League manager who might need to pick a strong team in the FA Cup is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Manchester United continue to leak the party line to the media about their manager building a grand future for the club, but there remains precious little evidence that he is the master craftsman the project requires.
Manchester United have now taken 39 points from their last 30 league matches. Participation deep into the cup competitions is one way to offset concerns that he may soon lose his job.
United have qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League and face Manchester City in the EFL Cup semi-finals.
Unfortunately for Solskjaer, he takes his team to Molineux for a mighty difficult third-round assignment.
Mason Greenwood, Andreas Pereira, Phil Jones, and Brandon Williams are four fringe players who could well be given starts, but Solskjaer will be aware of the potential consequences of a second dismal away defeat in five days. At some point, he needs to produce a consistent run of fine form.
In his Everton unveiling, Carlo Ancelotti spoke at length about his excellent record against Liverpool. That was hardly a factor in his appointment, but it does provide Everton supporters with much-needed positivity when travelling to Anfield on Sunday. They have a wretched recent record there.
Given that Everton have very little else to play for (they surely won’t be relegated and have no other competitive commitments), Ancelotti may choose to keep some of his regular first-team starters in the team for such a symbolic fixture.
For Jurgen Klopp, a little less certainty. If a match against Everton usually ranks high for importance in the eyes of Liverpool supporters, that has been eroded by the club’s general brilliance; they have bigger fish to fry.
Klopp rested players for the league game at Anfield, and will presumably do the same here given his lack of rotation over the festive period. Does that create an opening for Ancelotti and Everton?
You have to feel for Aston Villa. Having started the season strongly before a decline in form, their season has been derailed — and potentially ruined — by a string of serious injuries sustained by key players. First Tyrone Mings suffered a hamstring strain, then John McGinn fractured his ankle and Tom Heaton and Wesley both suffered severe ligament damage against Burnley. They will be out for the remainder of the season.
A club like Aston Villa cannot afford such setbacks. Dean Smith would probably have made a raft of changes for the FA Cup trip to Fulham anyway, but now he must rely on fringe players in both cup competitions (they play in the EFL Cup midweek) and Premier League. That only increases the chances of further soft tissue injuries.
There are a great many indicators of Mike Ashley’s miserable influence over Newcastle United, but their record in the FA Cup stands out more than most. It proves Newcastle are a club that don’t care for anything other than league consolidation that provides vast broadcasting revenues. Why hold ambitions of glory when mediocrity pays so well?
In the two full seasons prior to Ashley’s takeover, Newcastle reached the FA Cup semi-finals and quarter-finals. In the 12 full seasons since, they have never gone beyond the fourth round and have won only six matches. That should be a cause of deep embarrassment.
Steve Bruce would love to change that streak, and to ease the angst of the league season with a cup run. In fact, he may believe it could alter the perception of his time in charge. Cue limp defeat at League One Rochdale.