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Football | FA Cup

Alex Ferguson © Action Images

Hammers await United as FA Cup begins



Having established a seven-point lead in the Premier League over the festive period, Manchester United turn their thoughts to the FA Cup on Saturday when they visit West Ham United in the third round.

Cup-winners a record 11 times, United have not lifted English football's oldest trophy since 2004 and have seen Chelsea dominate the competition in recent years, winning four of the last six tournaments.

West Ham eliminated United from the FA Cup with a stunning fourth-round win at Old Trafford in 2001, and the Hammers could have a survivor from that game on the pitch if Joe Cole's proposed move from Liverpool is completed in time.

United also went out in the fourth round last season, losing 2-1 at Liverpool.

Manager Alex Ferguson has promised to rotate his squad as he seeks to keep his players fresh for the challenges ahead.

"We'll make a few changes for the cup tie," he said after Tuesday's 4-0 win at Wigan Athletic.

"We've got fresh players, though. Young Shinji Kagawa came on against Wigan and Tom Cleverley is fresh as he's not had a lot of football."

United's match at West Ham is one of four all-Premier League ties, alongside West Bromwich Albion's trip to Queens Park Rangers, Arsenal's game at Swansea City, and holders Chelsea's match at Southampton.

Chelsea were stunned 1-0 by bottom club QPR in the Premier League on Wednesday and interim coach Rafael Benitez has admitted that his players are feeling the effects of the gruelling Christmas season.

"I thought they were doing well and I thought that would be fine, but maybe in odd areas we were tired," he said.

"You could see we didn't have the intensity and the pace on the pass and the movement that we were expecting."

Southampton, meanwhile, have shown signs of improvement in recent weeks after a difficult start to the season and avoided defeat for the third successive game by holding Arsenal to a 1-1 draw on New Year's Day.

Manchester City, United's nearest rivals in the league, host second-tier Watford, with the FA Cup one of only two trophies they can now win after elimination from the League Cup and the Champions League.

Mario Balotelli was in line to replace the injured Sergio Aguero at the tip of City's attack, but he may have jeopardised his chances of playing after being pictured in a furious training-ground row with manager Roberto Mancini.

With many of the competition's big names drawn against fellow top-flight sides, the chances of a major upset have been reduced, but seventh-tier Hastings United will hope to pull off a shock at Championship side Middlesbrough.

Romantics will also hope to see Mansfield Town earn a place in cup history when the team from the fifth-tier Conference National host last season's beaten finalists Liverpool on Sunday.

"I have never been to the third round of the cup and not many players get the opportunity to play against Liverpool, so this is extra-special," goalkeeper Alan Marriott told local newspaper the Mansfield Chad.

"We can go out and enjoy it without any pressure and the club should make some money out of it."

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