Tom Lappin: Little romance in FA Cup now, 2011 version is more ruthless

SLIP an English football fan of a certain age another whisky and Tizer and wait for the stream of consciousness. FA Cup third-round, snow piled up along the touchlines, mud and guts, Ronnie Radford . . . it's football's equivalent of nostalgie de la boue, a perverse fondness for the terrible violence of ugly football on abysmal pitches. And they miss it, how they miss it.

Offer them Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Leeds, and the memories are lit in May sunshine. Those were 1970s FA Cup finals; United denying Liverpool a treble in 1977, Leeds edging it with an Allan Clarke header over the holders in a dire centenary final in 1972.

In the less romantic, more ruthless world of 2011, the FA's third-round draw, propelled by some instinctive urge to keep up interest in an endangered historical artefact offers the clash of those past and present titans in January. Jobs are at stake. Well OK, maybe just Roy Hodgson's.

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Hodgson's sensible sports-casual jacket has gone well beyond the halcyon days of the shoogly peg, and is now suspended by a microfibre that can will be sundered by the faintest breeze of a mistimed back-pass or a goalkeeping fumble at Old Trafford. These are Roy's end times, and even a heroic result against United won't save him. Form, morale, squad-depth, confidence, attitude all count against Liverpool. In their favour are merely the collective desperation that can temporarily lift a despondent team, and Hodgson's rather decent record against Manchester United (at least in his rosy days at Fulham).

There may be a vestige of pride left in the Liverpool dressing-room that remembers the fans demand a fight against the loathed United. Unfortunately the converse applies. Against any other opposition United might have carried some of their fashionable disdain for cup competitions. After all, their only domestic defeat this season was a comprehensive 4-0 hammering at Upton Park in the Carling Cup. Against Liverpool, they will give no quarter. Actually it might be the most telling insult to field the fringe players tomorrow, as if Liverpool were just some lower division irritant, but even Sir Alex Ferguson's mordant sense of humour has its limits.

United's league season has been unusual in that they have plodded on, picking up points through persistence, or, as in the recent game against West Brom, larceny, while watching putative challengers struggle to keep up with their lacklustre pace. It's not unreasonable to suggest that Rafael Benitez's Liverpool of 2008 would wipe the floor with this Manchester United. Hodgson's team are more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of a similar scoreline to that 1977 final, 3-1.

On present league form it's not entirely preposterous to suggest that Liverpool could be replaced in the Premier League by the team who were their main rivals for hegemony of English football in the 1970s. Leeds United under Simon Grayson are a relatively tidy and modest team, the sensible antidote to the vainglorious dreamers of the Peter Ridsdale-David O'Leary era, and are pursuing promotion from fifth place in the Championship. Leeds rely on decent rather than extravagant players, and on Grayson's astute management.

Grayson's Leeds have no discernible genetic links with the damned United of Don Revie. Their defence would be laughed off the park by the likes of Paul Madeley or Jack Charlton. Grayson's side try to play attractive football, characterised by an impressive Scottish playmaker Robert Snodgrass, and an assiduous Argentinian lone striker Luciano Becchio. They won't be kicking Arsenal off the park this lunchtime.

Leeds face an Arsenal team that continues to battle its stereotype as a Gallic crew of diminutive fancy-dans. Like all stereotypes it is rooted in reality. When Arsenal's pass-move-and-finish football purrs through the gears, with the ball shifting effortlessly between the feet of Cesc Fabregas, Andriy Arshavin and Samir Nasri, there is no better spectacle in England. Comically, though, Arsenal's players and manager seem to bristle at the image, their protests following the lines of we're fed up being told we're just about brilliant technique, delicate grace and imagination, and demanding to be recognised for their willingness to fight, jostle and hoof as crudely as the rest.

Last season Leeds saw off Manchester United at this stage in the FA Cup. A second successive shock would encourage the fans who regard their team as Premier League candidates, but Arsene Wenger's team should treat the tie less casually than Ferguson's team.

The old-school fans will yearn for a sliding tackle that continues 20 yards through a mud-chute, for an orange ball held up by drifting snow, for the ripple of bristling sideburns as a centre-half rises at a corner. All estimable memories, of course, but they can hardly complain about Manchester United v Liverpool at Old Trafford, with a city's pride and a man's job at stake. The only guarantee is that Roy will go out with dignity.