FA Cup presents new challenge
Unfamiliarity of lower-division sides makes handicap options more attractive
The English FA Cup is the focus of the weekend betting list as the big teams enter the competition at the third-round stage. Six matches are live on TV, with Aston Villa v Manchester United and Leeds v Arsenal the two main attractions.
The FA Cup has a reputation for shock results but this has diminished in recent years due to the widening gap between the Premiership teams and the rest. This leaves punters with plenty of long odds-on chances on the weekend list and, while there are sure to be one or two surprises, the nature of the competition makes it hard to predict where they might happen. Another complication is that many of England's lower-division teams are unfamiliar to Hong Kong punters.
Punters could go for handicap bets to improve the odds or stick with the more familiar form by concentrating on the five all-Premiership matches in the third round - Birmingham v Blackburn, Manchester City v Leicester, Southampton v Newcastle, Aston Villa v Manchester United and Leeds v Arsenal.
They will be dealt with in detail later, but first there are some statistical pointers which may help to identify worthwhile bets in the other matches. The first step in building a picture of how the competition might develop is to realise that Premiership teams are most likely to be knocked out by other Premiership sides - in the past three seasons, the totals of Premiership sides knocked out by lower-division opposition in the whole of the FA Cup campaign have been seven, seven and five (essentially from 19 possibles, given the high probability of a Premiership winner in the final, and roughly at a rate of two per round, in rounds three four and five).
More than 40 per cent of those defeats (eight out of 19) have come against teams in the top 10 of Division One at the start of the third round, and many of the Premiership teams knocked out have been those close to the bottom before the third round and/or those eventually relegated. The reason is obvious - the gap between the Premiership's bottom teams (out of form) and the top sides (in form) in Division One at this stage of the season is not so big. In addition, most of the top 10 Division One sides only exit the competition against Premiership opposition - seven out of the 10 last season, with eight and six the previous two years. So that gives us 30 top teams (20 in the Premiership and 10 in Division One) who are most unlikely to lose to any side from outside that 30. Of the top 10 in Division One at the moment, only leaders Norwich have drawn a Premiership team, away at Everton, while four more are in opposition, namely Wigan v West Ham and Preston v Reading. That leaves West Brom, Sheffield United, Sunderland, Ipswich and Millwall as the most obvious candidates to progress to the fourth round.
The best-value win bets among the Division One teams are Sheffield United (third) and West Brom (second), who both have good recent cup records and face out-of-form opponents from the same league. United, semi-finalists in both the FA Cup and League Cup last season, go to Cardiff (12th), who have lost their last four games, while West Brom are away at Nottingham Forest (20th), who have not won in 11 games, a run which includes a 3-0 home defeat to West Brom five weeks ago.
There are plenty of Premiership clubs who face lower-division opposition and therefore have a high percentage chance of going through - Wolves, Middlesbrough, Spurs, Bolton, Charlton, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Liverpool and Fulham. The most appealing bet on the handicap is Portsmouth at home to Blackpool of Division Two, while Wolves are worth considering to win by more than a goal at Third Division Kidderminster.
If there are to be any shocks for the Premiership teams, they are most likely to come in the matches with some degree of local rivalry (Spurs at home to Crystal Palace, Charlton at Gillingham and Bolton at Tranmere). Having said that, Charlton's good away record makes them look over-priced against Gillingham (15th in Division One and beaten in six of their 13 home games this season).
Spurs have a fine cup tradition but their recent slump makes them vulnerable against Palace, who have won three of their last four games. As for Everton, they haven't got an easy draw against Norwich but their good home record should give them the edge. Norwich's ascent to the top of Division One has been founded on exceptional home form, while their away record is average even by Division One standards.
Several of the all-Premiership games appeared one-sided when the draw was made a month ago, as Blackburn had just won 4-0 at Birmingham and Manchester United had hammered Aston Villa by the same score at Old Trafford, while Arsenal had run out 4-1 winners at Leeds in early November. The picture has changed in the past month, with Villa unbeaten in five since their demolition at United and Birmingham winning two out of three since the game against Blackburn (whose record since is won one, drawn one, lost two). Leeds had also gone unbeaten in five before last Sunday's 3-1 defeat at Wolves.
Villa have to be fancied at good odds against United now that they are at home. They beat Chelsea 2-1 at Villa Park in the Carling Cup last month and have a three-from-three record at home to United in the same competition over the past decade. In their only recent FA Cup meeting, at the third-round stage two years ago, Villa led 2-0 at home before letting in three goals in the last 13 minutes. Villa at +1 on the handicap looks a good option.
Arsenal's control of the game was hugely impressive at Southampton last Sunday, even if the 1-0 scoreline was a poor return, and they should be too strong again for Leeds, while Birmingham v Blackburn should be much closer this time and a draw might be the outcome there.
Manchester City v Leicester is another rematch of a recent game, in which Leicester ran out 3-0 winners on November 9. The home side haven't won in nine games since, though there is some promise in the fact that they have ended their goal drought by scoring in their last four matches. Leicester's record since their last visit to Manchester is one win, four draws and two defeats, and they could add to City's misery as they have scored at least twice in their last four away games. The best option might be to take Leicester at +1 on the handicap. Southampton will fancy their chances at home to Newcastle in the other all-Premiership clash. Newcastle won their home fixture 1-0 earlier this season, but it is likely to be a different story this time as Southampton have an excellent home record against Newcastle, with eight wins and two draws in 10 Premiership meetings. Another early exit looks on the cards for Newcastle, who have gone out in the third round in two of the past three seasons.
The league season resumes in Spain this weekend, with Italy following suit in midweek, when there is also a full programme in the English Premiership. The top games are previewed in full inside.
One of the best bets in Spain is Valladolid at home to Real Betis. Valladolid have a good home record (five wins and two draws in eight) and have lost only once in their last eight overall, while Betis have taken only five points from a possible 24 in the same period. Malaga also appeal as a good home bet against Real Sociedad, who haven't won in any competition since late October.
Best homes: Portsmouth, Sunderland, Southampton, Valladolid, Malaga.
Best aways: Sheffield United, Charlton, West Brom.
High goals: Portsmouth v Blackpool, Sunderland v Hartlepool, Malaga v Real Sociedad.
Low goals: Birmingham v Blackburn, Bilbao v Osasuna, Udinese v Sampdoria.
Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$200 win Charlton, West Brom, Portsmouth (-1), Valladolid, Malaga.