As the planet’s oldest knockout competition kicks into high gear later today (well, the 3rd round), The Guardian’s David Lacey surveys the scene.

The third round continues to bring the odd midget into an intriguing confrontation with a mighty contemporary and it would be nice to think that Manchester United will field a team of recognisable strength against Burton Albion tomorrow. After all United are not going to win the Premiership and they are out of the Champions League, so why not give Burton a show?

Reality, however, suggests that, though Sir Alex Ferguson may put out a stronger side than he did at Northampton in the fourth round two seasons ago, United still need to keep their powder dry for what Old Trafford would regard as more pressing matters. Though winning the FA Cup for the 12th time would arrest Ferguson’s declining prestige, his principal aim must be to ensure that Manchester United finish second to Chelsea and qualify automatically for next season’s Champions League.

Arsenal and Liverpool are seeking a similar guarantee, which is likely to influence the team selections of Arsène Wenger and Rafael Benítez for their third-round ties against Cardiff and Luton. Neither will want to lose but Wenger may be more ready to forgive a repetition of the goalkeeping blunder by Dan Lewis that helped Cardiff to beat Arsenal in the 1927 final and Benítez will probably be in a better mood than Kenny Dalglish when he leaves Kenilworth Road.

In 1987 Luton beat Liverpool 3-0 in a third-round second replay following two goalless draws. Dalglish and Liverpool felt that Luton should have been eliminated by default after failing to turn up at Anfield on the original date for the first replay, claiming that snow had prevented them from travelling. At that time the big clubs really cared about the Cup; now they care less.

Such an attitude can undermine the Cup’s authenticity. Take the season before last when Millwall reached the final from the middle reaches of the First Division. Millwall may have been there on merit but Tranmere Rovers, their victims in the quarter-finals, had beaten Bolton Wanderers’ reserves in the third round, Sam Allardyce having decided that his first team had enough on its plate with the Carling Cup. What was arguably common sense for Bolton threw the Cup out of kilter.

Queens Park Rangers, hoping to end their recent run of cup futility, travel to Blackburn . Text message fiend Craig Bellamy is expected to be in the starting lineup for Rovers, along with Paul “I Think I Cut My” Dickov.