English football is battling to keep the FA Cup third round on the round as the spread of coronavirus across the United Kingdom takes its toll on the traditional centrepiece of festive football in the country.
One game has already been postponed with another in doubt, meaning the English Football Association is battling with a string of issues as clubs from the Premier League and EFL meet this weekend:
- Southampton's FA Cup tie with Shrewsbury Town being postponed after the latter said they could not field enough players for the tie.
- Aston Villa are expected to field a youth team against Liverpool after a coronavirus outbreak at Bodymoor Heath forced them to cancel training the day before the game.
- Derby County will be forced to field a youth team against Chorley after a raft of cases within their first team.
- Space for rearranged fixtures is not immediately clear with Premier League matches scheduled in every midweek before the fourth round scheduled for the weekend of January 23.
Shrewsbury, who sit 17th in League One and would have been targeting a famous cup upset after four wins in their last five games, will be unable to send a squad to St Mary's Stadium after what they confirmed on Wednesday were "several" positive diagnoses within the playing squad and staff.
No alternative date has been confirmed for the game, due to take place on Saturday. There is no immediately apparent date in which Southampton could participate before the fourth round is due to take place later this month with all midweek slots given over to Premier League games. Both sides are expected to be in the draw for the fourth and fifth rounds on Monday.
The FA said in a statement: "Shrewsbury Town informed us that there have been a significant number of positive COVID-19 cases at the club, such that they did not have a sufficient amount of fit, non-isolating players who would be able to play in the fixture.
"The club provided us with details of the medical advice it had received and its communications with local Public Health England and liaised with our COVID medical officer for the Emirates FA Cup.
"We also requested and considered further information regarding Shrewsbury Town's ability to fulfil the fixture. There will be a meeting of our Professional Game Board early next week to make a decision as to what will happen with the fixture."
Shropshire director of public health Rachel Robinson said that Town had "acted responsibly and taken all the necessary precautions to limit the spread of the virus, which in this case has required closing the training ground and isolating all close contacts."
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Aston Villa's third round tie with Liverpool is due to raise the curtain on the 32 fixtures that compromise the third round of the FA Cup, an unseeded tournament beloved in England for its history of giant killings, but it will do so in unusual fashion. Two rounds of COVID-19 testing at Bodymoor Heath brought sufficient positives for Villa to close their training ground down and isolate many first-team players. They are expected to face the Premier League champions with a squad made up predominantly if not entirely from their youth teams.
Meanwhile Derby County will also have to field a team of Under-23 and Under-18 players following a coronavirus outbreak saw their training ground shut. The first team, managed by Wayne Rooney on an interim basis, are unable to play. Youth team coaches Pat Lyons and Gary Bowyer are expected to take charge instead.
FA Cup rules state that clubs should fulfil their fixtures if they have 14 available players.
Burnley's Sean Dyche also confirmed that his squad has "a couple of cases which will affect us over the coming days." He did not suggest that the tie against MK Dons was yet in doubt, saying that the club are instead having to "re-pod" some of their players.
This week has seen EFL clubs undergo a round of mandatory testing. On Tuesday the Premier League confirmed that there had been a record 40 new positive for the period from December 28 to January 3. That represented more than double the 18 of the previous week, which itself was a record.
While clubs in the top flight have made use of tests throughout the winter months some players in the lower leagues of the English tier have not been tested for COVID-19 since the November international break. Dozens of fixtures in the Championship, League One and League Two were postponed due to the virus.
The EFL confirmed on Wednesday that it would now introduce twice-weekly testing in its three divisions with chief executive Trevor Birch saying: "We have repeatedly maintained that adhering to the stringent protocols implemented during the restart last summer and then across all clubs since the beginning of the season was going to be our best chance of beating the virus and to keep playing matches.
"Only last week we took the decision to enhance these to further minimize risk, though with the new strain of the virus taking hold across parts of the country, it is now clear from our discussions with our medical advisors and public health officials that additional testing, operated in conjunction with strict protocols, may prove beneficial in the immediate short-term.
"We will continue to review the situation and make any adjustments or changes as circumstances dictate with the health and well-being of our players and club staff the overwhelming priority."