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Injury-hit Liverpool looks to avoid upset in 3rd round of the FA Cup in a long trip to Exeter

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MANCHESTER, England — It's a match that has all the ingredients of a classic FA Cup upset.

An injury-hit, inconsistent and potentially jaded Premier League heavyweight making a 500-mile (800-kilometer) round trip to a team in the lower reaches of the fourth tier with a small ground, poor field and a recent history of shocking a top side.

Exeter's home game against Liverpool on Friday is the pick of the games in the third round of the FA Cup, when the giants of the Premier League join the teams from the lower leagues and non-league in the world's oldest club knockout competition.

As always, the search is on for a huge shock on one of the most exciting weekends in the English soccer calendar and it could come at the 8,500-capacity St. James' Park, which — located in the south-west corner of England — is one of the most remote grounds in the country.

Liverpool is in the middle of a grueling schedule — it will be the team's sixth game in 19 days — that is taking its toll on the squad. Manager Juergen Klopp is without a senior center back for the match as Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure are all hurt, while attackers Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are also injured.

The match comes three days after a League Cup semifinal match at Stoke, and five days before a Premier League game against first-place Arsenal. Klopp could even make 11 changes to the team.

"It will be a team that hasn't played too often together," Klopp said. "If this is a chance for Exeter, then they have to take it.

"I saw after the rain the pitch is not in the best shape. The dressing room should be small, I heard, so maybe we should not spend the longest time in it."

This will all be music to the ears of Exeter's players, whose team is 16th in the 24-team League Two — a gap of 76 places to Liverpool in the English soccer ladder. The last time Exeter reached this stage was in 2005, when it took Manchester United to a replay after a goalless draw at Old Trafford.

"The pitch won't be the best — we've had a lot of rain down here — so it will be difficult for Liverpool to get their slick passing going," said Clinton Morrison, the former Crystal Palace and Ireland striker who is currently Exeter's most famous player. "If we get in their faces, press them, who knows?"

Liverpool's form has been up and down over the past month, with anger inside Klopp after a 2-0 loss at West Ham on Saturday turning to pride after a 1-0 win at Stoke. The German coach is concerned about having 11 players unavailable through injury — six either with or recovering from hamstring problems — and there have been accusations that his preferred high-energy pressing game has led to the injuries.

PHOTO: Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp gestures during the first leg of the English League Cup semifinal soccer match between Stoke City and Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp gestures during the first leg of the English League Cup semifinal soccer match between Stoke City and Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

There are five all-Premier League games, including Arsenal starting the defense of the title at home to Sunderland, while Eastleigh — the only non-league team remaining — hosts financially stricken second-tier club Bolton.

Here are some more things to look out for this weekend:


THREE-PEAT

Arsenal is bidding to become the first team since Blackburn in 1884-86 to win the FA Cup in three straight years, and to extend its record-setting haul of FA Cup titles to 13.

With his team having its best chance in years to win the Premier League, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger must decide whether to rotate his squad. Wenger said Thursday that Alexis Sanchez is not yet ready to return from a hamstring injury but midfielder Mikel Arteta is available.


UNITED'S RIPOSTE

Manchester United stemmed the crisis swirling around its manager, Louis van Gaal, by beating Swansea last weekend to end a winless run of eight games, but losing to third-tier club Sheffield United would put the Dutchman under fresh scrutiny.

Sheffield United has been a cup specialist in recent years, reaching the League Cup semifinals last season and the FA Cup semifinals in 2014.


POTENTIAL UPSETS

The potential for so-called "giant killings" in the third round isn't as big as in many previous years.

But Everton will be wary when it hosts fourth-tier club Dagenham and Redbridge, as will Stoke on its trip to third-tier club Doncaster and Aston Villa when it visits fourth-tier team Wycombe.

Villa is facing relegation after winning only once in 20 Premier League games this season, so the FA Cup will come as a respite.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Liverpool’s Jordon Ibe, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Stoke City during the first leg of the English League Cup semifinal soccer match between Stoke City and Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke on Trent, England, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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