Everton face tricky Royal engagement
Having spent recent months threatened by the prospect of a relegation battle, Everton have crept back into the top half of the Premier League. More consistency will be required if they are to avoid looking over their shoulders in the coming months - they are six points behind sixth-placed Liverpool, six points ahead of rock-bottom Wigan - but David Moyes, without a trophy since his arrival at Goodison Park in 2002, would be justified in allowing his focus to drift towards the FA Cup.
Everton have already eliminated Chelsea - the defending champions and their conquerors in the 2009 final - and a home tie against Reading, currently 10th in the Championship, provides a golden opportunity to progress to the quarter-finals.
Since knocking League Two side Stevenage out of the competition at the end of January, Reading have recorded only one victory in seven league games, and the 3-3 draw at relegation-threatened Crystal Palace at the weekend demonstrated defensive weaknesses that Everton will be eager to expose. Nonetheless, the Royals have already dispatched Premier League opposition in the FA Cup - they beat West Brom 1-0 at the Madejski Stadium in January - and last year enjoyed success on Merseyside as they dumped out Liverpool in a third-round replay.
Further victories over Burnley and West Brom ensured they reached last season's quarter-finals, and boss Brian McDermott has outlined his determination to repeat that feat.
"It's a great game," McDermott said on the club's official website. "It's what we want. We've been to Merseyside before - we love going there - but we'll only enjoy it if we win and get through to the next round
Everton player to watch - Mikel Arteta:
With home advantage and against lower-league opposition, Everton will expect to boss this tie and will be relying on Arteta to take charge. "People talk about Iniesta with 95 passes and something like 94 were accurate," Moyes said after the 2-0 victory over Sunderland on Saturday. "You have to keep the ball and Mikel can keep the ball for us."
Reading player to watch - Shane Long:
Long has hit 17 goals in all competitions this season, and he won and converted a penalty as well as providing an assist in the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace at the weekend. If Everton can keep the Republic of Ireland striker quiet at Goodison, they will go a long way towards sealing their place in the quarter-finals.
Key battle - Jermaine Beckford v Alex McCarthy:
Moyes believes Beckford needed more time at the start of this season to make the step up from League One to the Premier League but, with five goals in all competitions already in 2011, he now appears to be finding his feet. Reading, meanwhile, are facing serious problems in defence, with injuries including captain Ivar Ingimarsson, centre-back Alex Pearce, right-back Andy Griffin and goalkeeper Adam Federici. McDermott spoke of his frustration with the defensive lapses that cost his side two points in the 3-3 draw with Palace at the weekend, so 21-year-old goalkeeper Alex McCarthy - fresh from conceding and then saving a penalty in that game - may need to be at his best.
Prior to last season, Reading had not made the FA Cup quarter-finals for 83 years.
Everton and Reading have never met in the FA Cup, but Everton came out on top when they collided in the second round of the League Cup of 1973. In their Premier League meetings, Everton won two, Reading one, while the other encounter ended in a draw.
Everton (4/9), Reading (13/2) and the draw (10/3) are all available on bet365. Shane Long is priced at 10/1 as first goalscorer, or 3/1 to score at any time.
Everton have been unpredictable throughout the season, and the successes against Chelsea and Sunderland should not be taken as a guarantee they have turned the corner. Nonetheless, they have been in good form and, with home advantage, they should be confident of progress without the need for a replay.