What does it say about a side that is capable in the cup but flounders in the league? Answers on a postcard. For one more night, at least, the stresses of League Two go back on the shelf and Carlisle United have an anxiety-free chance of making some better headlines in this grim season.

A second shot at Cardiff, in their FA Cup Third Round replay, is an outcome United have earned in a positive run so far. It has included the comfortable avoiding of calamity at Dulwich Hamlet on live TV, the determined dispatching of Forest Green over two games, and a gutsy 2-2 draw at a Championship ground 11 days ago.

If only it could have been as progressive in the league. That business will be back on the table almost the moment tonight’s tie is over, given the importance of Saturday’s skirmish at Oldham.

The challenge in a few hours' time is refreshingly different than the bid to rise from fourth-bottom; it is to make the most of a Brunton Park occasion that would sit well in United’s FA Cup history should they knock out a side from two divisions up. We are too far into 2019/20 to assume any result would translate into league form, so it’s probably best just to enjoy it for what it is.

What it is not, according to Chris Beech, is a “free hit”. “I hear this term a lot from managers and other people,” he said. “A free hit, a relief of pressure…it’s not.

“I look at it the other way. It’s an opportunity to make sure we get better, to go against higher-class opposition, a great platform for the players. They have to not fear it, embrace the challenge.”

It’s also an opportunity to make some more money: the theme of this United week. After Jarrad Branthwaite’s sale to Everton, another £135,000 in prize money will drop into Carlisle’s account if they pull off an upset this evening. To do so, they must do as they did at the Cardiff City Stadium and better, in a game Neil Harris’s side could probably have done without.

A tall ask for a side so unaccustomed to winning, perhaps. United were as dismal as the weather against Plymouth in their last league game, are an extra man down tonight (Aaron Hayden, who is suspended) and will have to find some extra strength from within in order to reach the Fourth Round for only the second time since 1997.

With Branthwaite’s replacement, Max Hunt, also cup-tied, Beech’s resources are not plentiful but perhaps this will bring a little against-the-odds spirit out of the Blues. United’s head coach feels the challenge is no different just because Carlisle have home advantage this time. Brunton Park has hardly been a stronghold this season. Beech said: “I think it’s gonna be far harder [than the first game]," he said. "I think they [Cardiff] will respect what we did there, and they’ll take that into account with team selection, even though they did pick a strong team in the first game.

“Neil’s trying to get to know all his players. I suppose he had a positive result and a clean sheet against Swansea in the derby [a 0-0 draw on Sunday] when it looked like they were gonna win that match…but they’re definitely gonna come here and want to progress, because it’s good for him and his club.

“But I’ve got to protect our [team] and our opportunities. I understand we’ll need to be right at it, to do everything correct. Like I said on Saturday…we won’t need eight men to get a positive result, we’ll need all 11, and the three substitutes that can come on and affect the game.”

This has been a season of (largely justified) pessimism at Brunton Park but the gulf between tonight’s opponents can still be fairly highlighted. Cardiff are very recently down from the Premier League; United in their sixth consecutive basement campaign.

This is why Beech laughed a little when it was mentioned that Harris did make several changes for the first game. “Yeah, he did, but they had some strong players playing. Was [Josh] Murphy £11m? Come on! What would £11m do for us? That’s just one player.

“It’s ridiculous what we’re going against. Sometimes we forget, and it’s probably because, in recent history, we’ve played Cardiff in a league game, but they’ve gone through the roof in finance and facility [since then].”

It may feel recent enough to think of United and the Bluebirds on the same level. The Welsh side’s last visit here, though, was nearly 20 years ago now, a fourth-tier skirmish in October 2000, when Stephane Lemarchand and Scott Dobie scored in a 2-2 draw in front of a dire crowd of 1,309.

That came towards the lowest ebb of the Michael Knighton era. United recovered from that but, three regimes on, remain in a lowly position. Cardiff, with their wealthy Malaysian owners, are another club who have risen way past them, having long moved on from their battling days at Ninian Park.

The day United catch up, even a little, is yet to come. Tonight they are very much the upstarts, out to deal with flaws on Saturday that Beech called “unacceptable”, and trying to find and sustain the better qualities that have not appeared for long enough this season.

“The reason, often, that a player plays higher, or even an athlete in a different sport can progress more, is not sometimes because they get better,” Beech said. “It’s that they can stay consistent more often, and repeat actions, stay near the hot-spot of perfect performance.

“We have players who can hit a Championship-standard performance, but when we hit that it’s usually individual, not collective. We have to try and encourage those habits in the players, the way we train, react, the professionalism of us to prepare for games and try and hit more consistent traits.”

Carlisle, Beech said, trained well on Monday, two days after their 3-0 Argyle undressing, but admitted this was no guarantee of anything. “It was a good session, fast, better, the traits I wanted to see on Saturday, but as my dad used to say to me, ‘It’s no good singing in the shower, son, you’ve got to sing on stage”.

“We’ve got to make sure we bring it to the game. Let’s represent our fans, ourselves, in that game to the best of our abilities. If we catch [Cardiff] on the off-day, the weather’s in our favour, and we get things right and react the right way to mistakes, who knows?”