Leeds United: Arsenal away is the nightmare cup test - Hunter

AMID all the hullabaloo regarding Leeds United's marquee FA Cup third-round date at London giants Arsenal early next month, you'll find one dissenter.

Former Whites defensive enforcer and Elland Road legend Norman Hunter insists the seemingly appetising Emirates Stadium tie against the side that provided him with one of his finest footballing hours way back in May 1972 is an unpalatable one.

Try telling that the 8,500 who will flock en masse to the capital in 17 days' time, with United – inundated by over 13,000 requests for tickets – forced to stop accepting applications last week.

A scrumptious side-course to the bread-and-butter of Championship life it may be for the hordes who make their first pilgrimage to the gleeming Emirates, but Hunter feels the last team United wanted to be facing on their own patch in the third round of football's oldest club competition is 10-times winners Arsenal.

Particularly with both the FA Cup and League Cup offering Arsene Wenger's side their most hazard-free route for silverware following a barren trophy-less streak which stretches back to May 2005.

That came when they saw off Manchester United – the only side to lift the FA Cup more times than them – on penalties at the Millennium Stadium and while their five-season silverware drought isn't exactly an eternity in the greater scheme of things, it certainly feels like it to Gunners fans who have grown sick of the sight of big rivals Chelsea and Manchester United carving up a glut of honours between them ever since.

Having landed the proverbial draw from hell in the Champions League in the shape of Barcelona – the closest you will get to perfection with their football seemingly preordained from the gods – and currently 9-2 third favourites to lift the Premiership between Manchester United and Chelsea, the importance of the FA Cup can't be overestimated for Wenger and his charges.

The Gunners may float like a butterfly in a footballing sense, with their captivating style earning gushing praise from pundits for too many years to mention, but the more sage observers would add that they also sting like one when the business end of the season arrives.

Some hacks have gone even further and labelled them as bottlers, who lack of ruthless edge, and you sense the north London outfit would take great relish in ramming the jibes back down certain throats when they do, finally, end their silverware famine.

It all adds up to a teak-tough assignment for Leeds who have prevailed against Arsenal just twice in their seven FA Cup ties – though several games have gone to replays.

And United would also create history if they triumphed at the Emirates with the hosts yet to see their colours lowered in seven FA Cup ties at the palatial home they moved into in time for the 2006-07 campaign.

Hunter said: "I don't think it's a great tie, whatsoever. If there's one team you don't want to meet, it's Arsenal away.

"Alright, he (Wenger) will stick out his reserves, to a point. But they are not what you'd call reserves, are they?!

"They just pass the ball and football you to death. It's going to be a very, very difficult tie.

"I think Wenger is something else, although he's not the happiest soul.

"As a coach, and what he does with his teams, I think they are spectacular.

"I would have loved Arsenal at home to let our fans see what they are all about and what we've got to aim for, but it will be really difficult going there."

Given an ideal world, it's probably correct to assume that in terms of importance at the start of any campaign for a "big four" club like Arsenal that the FA Cup comes third in their list of priorities behind the Premier League and Champions League.

But Hunter, who tasted defeat in the biggest one-off game in domestic football at Wembley in 1965, 1970 and 1973 – the victory over the Gunners in the centenary final of 1972 representing a glorious interlude – is still adamant that the magic of the cup still holds.

And while he rates United's chances of pulling off a similar seismic shock – as they did across the Pennines at Old Trafford just over a year ago – as remote, he still feels the Gunners can be got at.

Weaknesses

And the man who gained the nickname 'Bites Yer Legs' says brawny sides such as Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers – Arsenal's conquerors in the FA Cup in 2010 and 2007 respectively – and Bolton Wanderers have shown up the Gunners' weaknesses over the years on a consistent basis.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that the prospect of a third-round replay against in-form hosts at the most parochial of venues on a freezing midweek January night 'up north' wouldn't be a wholesome one for the Gunners.

Hunter said: "People talk about the importance of the cup. The FA Cup was huge back in my day; but I still think it is.

"Although with the money aspects and Europe, and the squads being that big now, people play weakened sides until it starts getting serious in the quarter-finals.

"It still means as much to a player to win the FA Cup as it did when we played.

"In terms of Arsenal, it is. I don't think they will win the league – although they have a better chance this year.

"But they are still a bit vulnerable at the back, with the way they play.

"Scoring goals and going forward, they are great, but if you can get enough possession and have a go at them at the back on the physical side, then you've got a chance.

"But, overall, I wouldn't back us. If we can come away with a draw, we well have done absolutely fantastic.

"Obviously, the league is our priority and we've done remarkably well. I was wondering which players would stand up to the plate and be counted in this division and several have; we've done alright.

"I thought if we'd have finished above halfway, I'd have been very, very happy.

"But we're plugging on, that's the important thing and Simon Grayson is doing a great job."

Chris Wood controls a high ball against Fulham at Elland Road on Tuesday night. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

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