FA Cup final looks likely to be cagey, low-scoring affair
Chelsea v Liverpool in tonight's FA Cup final has both a sense of the conventional and the unfamiliar. They are two of the most decorated clubs in the competition's long history and come from the Premier League's dominant big six, yet strangely enough this is the first time they have met in the final.
Liverpool will be joint third in the all-time FA Cup standings if they win tonight, which would be their eighth triumph in 14 appearances in the final, while Chelsea are going for their seventh success from 11 appearances.
In the previous 19 finals since the Premier League was founded, Chelsea or Liverpool have appeared in 10, but never together until now.
Of those 10 appearances, the two teams have won seven between them, and the only failures were against teams that were completing the Premier League-FA Cup double, so there is no doubt about their credentials as cup teams.
Their status as cup specialists has been reinforced in recent seasons. Chelsea have won three of the past five finals, and in the past five seasons have lost only once in open play in the FA Cup - the shock defeat by Championship side Barnsley in the 2008 quarter-finals. Their FA Cup record in that period is won 25, drawn seven and lost one (in 90 minutes' play).
Liverpool's last FA Cup triumph predates that period and came in that modern rarity - an epic, memorable final - when they beat West Ham on penalties after a 3-3 thriller in 2006. But they have rediscovered their taste for the cups under Kenny Dalglish, having already lifted the Carling Cup this season, when their run to the final included a 2-0 win at Chelsea.
Dalglish's first match back in charge at Liverpool was last season's 1-0 FA Cup third-round defeat at Old Trafford, but he is since undefeated in domestic cup competitions, with 10 wins and two draws.
The problem for Dalglish is that his side are struggling for form. The Carling Cup win at Stamford Bridge in November was the culmination of an 11-match unbeaten run, and at the time it was Chelsea who were in the doldrums, with questions mounting about Andre Villas-Boas' suitability as manager. But now Liverpool have run out of steam, while Chelsea have found a new lease of life since Roberto di Matteo replaced Villas-Boas in early March.
Liverpool's problems really started after the Carling Cup final win on penalties against Cardiff on February 26. They struggled to seal victory at Wembley on that occasion - a repeat performance is likely to leave them well short against Chelsea - and have since won only five out of 13, with seven defeats.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have been virtually unstoppable under Di Matteo - they have lost only two out of 17, away to Premier League leaders Manchester City and at home to fifth-placed Newcastle on Wednesday night. Di Matteo's team have won 11 of those 17 games, a remarkable record considering they have been playing much tougher opposition than Liverpool (nine of those 17 games have been in the Champions League or against big-six teams from the Premier League).
That is not to say Chelsea will run away with tonight's match - Liverpool have won their last four meetings with the Blues and their head-to-head record is littered with close, often low-scoring matches. So, too, is the recent history of FA Cup finals, with 17 of the last 23 seeing less than 2.5 goals.
Although Chelsea look attractive odds for the win on current form, there is a slight risk attached as finals often become cagey. Di Matteo's side are the clear pick with the safety net of the handicap, however, and under 2.5 goals is worth backing too. For bigger odds, 1-0 and 2-0 scorelines in favour of Chelsea should be considered.
The bigger prize of the Premier League takes centre stage tomorrow, with Manchester City away to Newcastle and Manchester United at home to Swansea. Manchester City's match at Newcastle will end shortly before their cross-town rivals' game starts, which means the Red Devils will know exactly what is required at kick-off time.
What may be required, if Manchester City win, is a hatful of goals for Manchester United, as that may be the only way they can get back on top. United are perhaps the only team who could close an eight-goal gap in goal difference, having already won five of their Premier League matches this season by a margin of five or more, and the likelihood of an all-out attacking effort suggests over 2.5 goals at Old Trafford is a good bet.
Manchester City, of course, may not win at Newcastle, who are one of the most difficult opponents they could have faced at this crucial time. The Magpies have lost only four out of 29 at home in the Premier League under Alan Pardew, and while one of those defeats was 3-1 against City early in Pardew's reign, they have not stopped improving.
Home form has been the mainstay of Manchester City's title bid (they are eight points ahead of Manchester United in that respect) and their away record is unconvincing, apart from wide-margin wins at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford early in the season. They have not beaten another top-half team on the road in six attempts and all their away wins since October have been against sides currently in the bottom seven.
The logical pick is Newcastle on the handicap.
Chelsea, Newcastle, Everton, Mallorca, Hamburg, Stuttgart.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Chelsea on handicap
The form pick as they seek a glorious May
2 Newcastle on handicap
Will be hard to beat for title-chasing City
3 Everton away win
On a roll and unbeaten in 15 against teams below them
4 Hamburg on handicap
Nothing to play for but worth the risk
5 Stuttgart home win
Eight wins out of 11 at home to teams below them
Newcastle's position on eight-match form, with Manchester City second