The sixth round of the FA Cup kicks off Saturday morning featuring a marquee clash between Manchester United and Arsenal. (TV: Fox Soccer, noon ET) Also in action Saturday are Birmingham and Bolton. (TV: Fox Soccer Plus, 730 ET)
Sunday sees Stoke host West Ham (TV: Plus, 10 ET ) and Manchester City against reading (TV: Fox Soccer, 1230 ET). The later-than-usual kickoffs are due to start of Daylight Savings Time in United States, two weeks before the change occurs in Europe.
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Arsenal and Manchester United limp into the Saturday’s game with an astonishing sixteen first-team injuries between the sides. Both teams have suffered steep drops in form, and both will have to rely on second and third-choice players in a game that neither team really wants to play right now.
Arsenal have suffered two huge reversals in the space of two weeks. First, the Gunners lost the Carling Cup final at Wembley when keeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny conspired to gift Birmingham a late, winning goal. This week, Arsenal were tumbled out of the Champions League by a better Barcelona team in a game that was marred by refereeing controversy. Now, Arsenal have only two trophies left to shoot for, and face stiff competition from Manchester United for both.
Arsenal also enter the game with only one goalkeeper, third-choice Manuel Almunia, after Szczesny was lost for six week when he dislocated his finger at Nou Camp Tuesday. First-string Lukas Fabianski was already out for the season (shoulder) and on-loan Vito Mannone is injured with a thigh problem, making a recall impractical. The club confirmed late Thursday night that it would be petitioning to make an emergency loan signing as the only two other listed keepers on the Arsenal roster are 19-year-old James Shea and 18-year-old Damian Martinez.
In addition, Arsenal will be without the injured Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Thomas Vermaelen for the match.
Manchester United are just as shaky of late, and for many of the same reasons. United have ten first-choice starters absent including Nani, Anderson, Rio Ferdinand, Park Ji-Sung, Jonny Evans and Antonio Valencia. United have also lost three of their last five league games, dropping matches to Chelsea, Liverpool and, most unlikely, at Wolverhampton.
Of late, United have owned this fixture, with three straight wins against the Gunners and a six-match unbeaten streak across all competitions. More worrying for Arsenal is that in their last three FA Cup meetings against United, the Gunners have failed to find the net: in their most recent Cup tie, the Gunners were swamped 4-0. United have also been dominant at Old Trafford, winning eight straight and enjoying a twenty-match unbeaten streak. Arsenal — like United — have been poorer on the road this season, and have not won in their last four away matches in all competitions.
But for United, the game offers something of a poisoned chalice: A win — or worse, a draw — leads to more fixtures in what is already a crowded schedule for the team. United currently leads the league by three points but Arsenal are hot on their heels and hold a game in hand. Arsenal and Manchester United will play each other in May, but the Red Devils have a stiffer closing schedule ahead of them, as they are expected to progress in the Champions League against Marseille next Tuesday and must also face Chelsea before season’s end.
In our other fixtures, Manchester City will be looking to bounce back from their dismal 2-0 loss on Thursday to Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League. They face the sole remaining contender from outside the Premier League in Reading, who upset Everton thanks to a goal by Matt Mills. City will be without Kolo Toure, who failed a drugs test, and may be without Mario Balotelli, who suffered an allergic reaction in the Ukraine.
Birmingham City, clawing for Premiership survival, could be missing as many as ten players against Bolton in Saturday’s early fixture. While the Blues surely would like to visit Wembley again this season, the fact that they sit just on the edge of the drop zone will have manager Ally McLeish making calculations as they must face Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham in the league before season’s end. Bolton will be without Daniel Sturridge as he is Cup-tied.
Finally, both Stoke and West Ham would be delighted to progress as they have no chance at any other pieces of silver this season. Stoke are only three points out of the drop zone despite sitting in twelfth while the Hammers — despite a recent blossoming that has seen them win three straight— still face long odds for Premier League survival. Stoke, on the other hand, are dipping badly, having won only once in their last five games. Last week, West Ham shocked Stoke with a 3-0 thrashing in the league; in all meetings this season against the Hammers, Stoke have yet to win.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.