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01/02: Reports:

F.A.Cup Third Round, 05/01/02, 12pm
By Matt Rowson

Not an easy preview to write.

I mean, it's not as if anyone needs to know who Arsenal are. "Well, there's this guy in midfield called Vieira and he's pretty strong, and Henry up front's got a bit of pace...". Oh, really ?

So what am I supposed to write about ?

Plus, Tuesday's utterly gutless performance was hardly motivating. After spending an hour and fifteen each way driving to and from work through fog and ice, the temptation to collapse in front of the telly is large enough without the memory of the feeble shambles of the Millwall game to spur me on. If Richard Sadlier can take the piss out of Ramon Vega, what's Thierry Henry going to do? Christ.

So Arsene Wenger's comically pompous proclamations regarding how best to remedy the injustices against which his side have to labour is manna from heaven, and a welcome distraction from more significant matters. Wenger's proposal, it transpires, involves a manager being able to play three "jokers" during the course of a game, the consequence of which would be to prompt a video review of the contentious decision of the manager's choice.

The word "joker" has rarely been more apt.

It's unfair to judge managers harshly on the basis of ill-chosen or emotional words prompted shortly after a game has ended. Most of us are quite prone to talking utter bollocks in the heat of the moment, managers cannot reasonably be expected to rise above that. But there really is no excuse for garbage like this.

Quite how a manager's jokers are to be evaluated is not entirely clear. Most logically the fourth official and a TV replay, one supposes, although the intimacy of a review in the technical area with the likes of Souness and Gregory peering over your shoulder is not a position many would volunteer for.

Perhaps an extra official, then, located remotely in some unseen corner of the stadium. A new career for Richard Short here perhaps, assuming this official had no microphone with which to communicate his opinions at the (captive) audience. Or maybe a panel could be set up at the Sky Sports Centre to evaluate each joker as they came in (comprising, for example, Frank McLintock, Kenny Sansom, Charlie Nicholas and Arsene's mother).

Plenty of sensible and worthy reasons for the rejection of this absurd suggestion can be listed without any great effort, of course. The prospect of "tactical jokers" at the end of games as a timewasting measure, when your team is under pressure or even when you've just conceded a goal is just too ridiculous to contemplate. And even assuming the availability and integrity of an assessor-of-whinges, many such contentious issues are as unclear on review as they are on first appraisal, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst's recent dismissal for diving being an example. At best any such scheme would by necessity introduce up to six breaks in play (the consequences of which in the current inclement climate should need no elaboration). Additionally, you would be asking lower division and amateur clubs to either invest in additional technology or differentiate the very game they are playing from that at the highest level merely by virtue of the Premiership's perceived self-importance. Which wouldn't be out of character, however intolerable,

But the crucial detail that Arsene seems to miss is the following: Not Every Contentious Decision Goes Against Arsenl. Arsene would have to recognise the possibility that Arsenal would be as likely to lose points as gain them by virtue of this joker system. Indeed, if one assumes that a constantish proportion of decisions are stuffed up independent of context then Arsenal, with such a prolific red card count, might have more to lose than most. One day Sky might even do something useful with their back-catalogue and work out league positions based on reviews of every contentious did-it-cross-the-line, should-that-have-been-a-penalty decision. But then what would Wenger, O'Leary, Hoddle and friends have to blame when things went against them?

And so to the entirely football-orientated kick-off time of Saturday lunchtime (incidentally, how many 3pm home Saturday's have we got scheduled still this season? Clue: it's less than four). Second-guessing Arsenal's line-up is almost as difficult as guessing where Heidar will be lining up this week.

With David Seaman still out for a month, Stuart Taylor is likely to continue in goal although Richard Wright has recently returned to the bench.

At the back, Lauren has an ankle knock and so Oleg Luzhny is likely to be a slightly unconvincing right-back. Lee Dixon has played some reserve games recently, but is unlikely to be available. Ashley Cole is likely to play on the left. In the centre, Sol Campbell and Martin Keown, who plays the cave troll in "The Fellowship of the Ring", have paired up for recent games, but Tony Adams was supposed to be targeting Saturday for his comeback. Other options include Gilles Grimandi, recent Watford target Matthew Upson and the encouragingly graceless Igors Stepanovs.

In midfield Ray Parlour serves the first of a two-game ban, but with the likes of Vieira, Van Bronckhorst, Ljungberg and Pires to chose from it's hard to use the word "weakened" with a straight face. Fringe players like fragile Brazilian Edu, Japanese commercial interest Junichi Inamoto and the precocious Jermaine Pennant might also come into the reckoning.

Up front recent games have seen Kanu, like Pierre Issa soon to disappear for a month, paired with Thierry Henry; if Wenger decides to go with a reserve line up we'll see Wiltord and Bergkamp. So that's okay, then. Francis Jeffers may also come into contention having scored a hat-trick in a reserve tie, but token youth-team product Graham Barrett is on a season's loan at Colchester.

Two seasons ago, Watford put up one of our better performances of the Premiership season at Vicarage Road against Arsenal, who beat us anyway (albeit with the help of the most inept refereeing performance in living memory).

Since then, a few things have changed. Arsenal, for starters, have an occasionally rabid team spirit, as was evident in their pulsating Christmas tie with Liverpool. Watford, meanwhile, lack a lot of the honest endeavour of the side of two years ago.

In any case, you get the feeling that the TV audience for whose benefit we are being royally buggered around are in for an entertaining spectacle; if the Hornets get out of bed on the right side, we might even give the Gunners a game.

In the circumstances, I'd be happy with that.