Hastings' big battle at the Riverside, Wolves feel the pressure at Luton and Mansfield's manager targets winning wedding weekend as Stags take on Liverpool
There are not quite 1066 places between Middlesbrough and Hastings United in the football pyramid but the chasm is still enormous (153 places, to be precise) and defeat for the Championship side, or even a draw or, come to think of it, anything less than an emphatic 6-0 victory, would be a major surprise and a mighty achievement by the Ryman League laymen. It is wonderful that the FA Cup forces big professional clubs to fraternise with grassroots heroes, and it is also wonderful that Hastings are going to the Riverside believing they can create history and not at all in danger of showing their hosts too much respect, an attitude summed up by the left-back Matt Whitehead's plans for shirt-swapping: "When we're walking down the tunnel, I'll say: 'Can I have your shirt?' If they ask for mine, I'll say: 'Mate, I'm sure you can afford to buy one.' So I'll have a bit of memorabilia and have my own shirt put in a frame."
The last time Wolverhampton Wanderers were drawn away to a non-league team in the FA Cup was against Chorley of the Multipart League in 1986. A humiliating 3-0 loss ensued, a fact that will have absolutely no bearing on this weekend's match at Luton Town but may just console Wolves fans by suggesting that no matter what happens against the Hatters, things can't get any lower than they did in 1986. Or can they? Perhaps we shouldn't rule out a new nadir given how things have been going recently, with the manager, Stale Solbakken, in a malodorous rut following three straight defeats during which the performances have gradually regressed from unlucky to totally unacceptable.
Gianfranco Zola seems to be getting things together at Watford, who have glided up the Championship in the past two months thanks to some free-flowing football. And not all of it is played by Italian Udinese loanees: the 18-year-old midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah has been so good for Watford this season that he was called up to the England Under-21 side, and the news that Chelsea have agreed to extend his loan until the end of the campaign means he can play against Manchester City and give us an indication of how close he is to being ready for the big time.
Mansfield Town's manager, Paul Cox, will spend his wedding night trying to figure out how to shackle Jonjo Shelvey. That, ladies and gentleman, is the romance of the Cup. Cox gets married on Friday and will hold his reception in the marquee tent that has been specially erected beside the One Call Stadium for the visit of Liverpool in the third round. Brendan Rodgers's job is to spoil the celebrations and he may even deploy Daniel Sturridge to help him do that, giving the new striker a chance to start improving his decision-making in front of goal. But if the non-leaguers spring a surprise, Cox and co will be remembered till death do us part.
Tony Pulis should target victory for Stoke City not just at Selhurst Park but in this competition outright. Ian Holloway, meanwhile, has an interesting pickle when it comes to picking his team: not only does he have to decide how to distribute his resources when locked in a promotion battle but he also has to determine how to factor in the potential consequences of Wilfried Zaha tearing up the third-best defence in the Premier League. Would that convince top clubs to submit an offer that Palace couldn't refuse? To what extent can excelling against them be considered an adequate test of a player's readiness for the top flight? Word is Holloway will give Zaha just 45 minutes against Stoke. Lots of people will be watching with interest.
Oldham Athletic's sorry form of late has left Paul Dickov with a precarious hold on his job. The board met last week and decided to remove his assistant and two other members of his backroom staff but allowed him to keep clinging on. Dickov has been in his job for two and a half years. Alex McLeish, meanwhile, has been in his job for two matches but could be forgiven for feeling under as much pressure as Dickov. Ditching Sean O'Driscoll to replace him with McLeish was a deeply unpopular move by the owners of Nottingham Forest and a draw with Crystal Place and a 3-0 defeat by Blackburn Rovers have done nothing to alter fans' views. Winning hearts and minds means winning matches and victory over Oldham is an essential starting point. At least one Scot is going to come out of this tie very cranky.
Ipswich Town have more important things on their minds than this so, after back-to-back wins in the Championship slightly alleviated relegation fears, Mick McCarthy will rest several players – but also, crucially, he will give Michael Chopra a chance to prove that he can fill the void left by DJ Campbell, who has returned to Queen Park Rangers following a prolific loan spell at Ipswich. If Chopra can show sharpness he may solve a big problem for Ipswich. Meanwhile, Aston Villa are also fighting relegation this season so Paul Lambert could also make sweeping changes and, um, send out a load of promising but callow youngsters. What? Ah.
Bournemouth are unbeaten since Eddie Howe returned to the club in October following his departure from Burnley, winning 12 matches and drawing four. They could hardly be in better shape ahead of their trip to the DW. Wigan Athletic will make many personnel changes for the match but will not change their methods, which means we should see a fun contest between two teams with decent passing styles – and possibly a win for the underdogs.
Great! An all-Premier League clash! Certain TV folks keep telling us that is what we want but, really, is another Sam Allardyce/Sir Alex Ferguson face-off what the FA Cup third round is all about? No, it is not.
Oh, go on then. This will be an interesting match. Arsène Wenger was wise enough to say after his team's wild 7-3 win over Newcastle United last week that he was "cautious" about suggestions his team had come out of crisis. The limp display at Southampton on Tuesday showed he was right not to get too excited. But what is he going to do about it? And how are his team going to react? Swansea wounded Arsenal's pride when beating them at their own game at the Emirates last month: do this Arsenal team have it in them to exact retribution?