Just like the Champions’ League, the North West Counties Football League Challenge Cup makes its long-awaited February return after being on hiatus since before Christmas.
We reach the third round stage this weekend, with 16 teams left in the competition. The League have confirmed this week that for the remainder of the season, each League Cup game will be played to a finish, including extra time and penalties.
The lack of replays should help ease fixture congestion for clubs later down the line this season, and it will also mean that by Saturday evening, we will have our quarter-final line-up complete (barring postponements).
For the clubs that have been knocked out of the competition at earlier stages, there have been five Premier Division games arranged, meaning all but one of the 22 clubs in the Premier Division will be playing this weekend. Ashton Athletic are the unlucky ones, with the odd number of top flight sides in the third round meaning that one club had to miss out.
Congleton vs Maine Road is arguably the tie of the round, with two of the better teams in the Premier Division going head to head. Maine Road lost in the final to Bacup Borough last year and will be keen to go one step further this time. The League and Cup double still remains a real possibility for Road.
Winsford United travel to Runcorn Linnets for the third time this season in what is sure to be a feisty Cheshire derby. Linnets are the form team in the NWCFL, having won their last six games, and will be keen to get one over their local rivals. Winsford won both previous meetings at Millbank Linnets Stadium this season 3-1.
Alsager are targeting a crowd of 200 for their home cup tie against AFC Liverpool, assistant manager Stuart Heeps launched the Target 200 scheme to increase footfall at the LAW Training Stadium, they are averaging 86 this season so it will be interesting to see the attendance on Saturday.
The only other all-Premier Division tie is at Padiham where they welcome AFC Blackpool, a game the home side will be confident of winning.
There will be a few Division One sides looking to cause upsets, the best chance of which may well be AFC Darwen, who sit in first place of Division One, they travel to Bacup Borough, 19th in the Premier Division. But with only four places separating them, a Darwen win may come of no surprise at all.
Division One’s Formby will provide a tough test for Barnoldswick, the Squirrels have only lost one league game this season. West Didsbury and Chorlton will have to be at their best to get a result away at Premier Division high-flyers Bootle, the draw for the last eight takes place at Delta Taxi Stadium following this game, and the Bucks will be confident that they will be in the hat.
It is a certainty that there will be at least one Division One side in the quarter final, as Abbey Hey welcome Cheadle Town in the final tie of the day. The home side sit in second place, and have won their last four games, seventh-placed Cheadle have a tough match-up on their hands.
Colne against Runcorn Town is the marquee fixture of the Premier Division this weekend, as both sides will look to take advantage of the fact that many of the teams around them will be playing in the Cup.
There are some important ‘basement battles’ this weekend, with Stone Dominoes looking for just their second win of the season away at 20th placed Squires Gate. St. Helens Town will be looking to move out of the relegation zone too, as they face Silsden in a winnable game.
Both the Wigan Robin Park vs Stockport Sports and Glossop North End vs Norton United games have all the makings of two mid-season mid-table clashes. Every one of these teams will have to have a drastic change in form to get caught in either the relegation battle or promotion race.
NWCFL Challenge Cup – Third Round
Abbey Hey vs Cheadle Town
Alsager Town vs AFC Liverpool
Bacup Borough vs AFC Darwen
Barnoldswick Town vs Formby
Bootle vs West Didsbury and Chorlton
Congleton Town vs Maine Road
Padiham vs AFC Blackpool
Runcorn Linnets vs Winsford United
NWCFL Premier Division
Colne vs Runcorn Town
Glossop North End vs Norton United
Squires Gate vs Stone Dominoes
St. Helens Town vs Silsden
Wigan Robin Park vs Stockport Sports