Bridging the great divide

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2004, 12:00am

The key to predicting the FA Cup results will be the attitude of the big guns - will they roll out their best players?

The FA Cup's reputation as a great leveller is on the decline but, while upsets are few and far between, handicap backers should be wary of expecting runaway wins for the big teams in this weekend's fourth round. In the third round, only four of the 10 Premiership teams drawn against lower-league opposition managed to win by two clear goals at the first time of asking (three of the five all-Premiership games were won by the same margin).

The magic of the FA Cup is captured in two of the weekend's live TV games - Chelsea at non-league Scarborough tonight and Manchester United's trip to Northampton Town tomorrow. On paper, there is nothing to worry the big boys - not even the possible presence of Vieira in the Northampton lineup against United (this Vieira is the Brazilian striker Magno Silvo Vieira, on loan from Wigan).

Both have been given a two-goal start on the handicap, but the biggest question for punters concerns the teams United and Chelsea are going to put out. United's attitude is hard to assess as they rarely meet such low-level opposition as Northampton - 82 places below the Premiership champions in the league structure. Chelsea's is more evident from their record - over the past six seasons, they have played away in the FA Cup to five sides from Division Two or below and won all five by at least two goals.

United and Chelsea should both win, of course, but their ability to cover the handicap might be hampered by the modern tendency to rest or substitute the best players once a result is assured. A draw on the handicap looks a good bet in both cases.

It was noted before the third round that Premiership teams tend 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).

This year's third round followed that pattern, with Charlton and Bolton falling to teams from Division One and Two respectively. One of the crucial factors behind their exits was that both fielded weakened sides, preferring to protect their Premiership positions at the expense of FA Cup glory.

The five other top-flight teams who fell at the first hurdle were knocked out by fellow Premiership sides and four more must go this time from Arsenal v Middlesbrough, Liverpool v Newcastle, Manchester City v Tottenham and Everton v Fulham.

That leaves nine other Premiership teams facing lower-league opposition and the stats say that at least two will exit at this stage - two went last year, three the year before and three the year before that. The suspects can be narrowed down further because the stats also show that a Division One side are most likely to do the giant-killing - six of the seven Premierships teams knocked out by a lower-league club last year went down to a Division One side, the same the year before, and four out of five the year before that.

Birmingham v Wimbledon and Wolves v West Ham, therefore, are the ties to concentrate on for a big upset. Birmingham, ninth in the Premiership, appear to have little to fear from Wimbledon, bottom of Division One. However, they have been beaten by lower-league teams in the Carling Cup for the past two seasons and their low-scoring attack might make them vulnerable if the visitors get an early lead. Wimbledon have improved in recent weeks, winning two of their last three away games.

There is more likelihood of an upset in the Wolves v West Ham clash. These sides swapped divisions in the ups and downs of last season and there is not much between them in terms of squad strength. West Ham have shown a tendency to throw away points (as they did last week when blowing a 3-1 lead to finish 3-3 at Sheffield United) but they have lost only once in their last 12 away (and, as that was 1-0 in extra-time at Spurs in the Carling Cup, it does not count for assessing their record over 90 minutes).

Wolves, of course, have built a pretty good home record, capped by their 1-0 win over Manchester United last week, and should not fear West Ham. And there is a stat against West Ham - namely, that most of the top 10 Division One sides at the start of the third round (West Ham were seventh; now eighth) exit the competition against Premiership opposition (seven out of the 10 last season, with eight and six the previous two years). In a pretty even contest, however, West Ham look worth a wager.

Of the other sides who were in the top 10 of Division One at the start of the third round, six are left and the odds are that the only vulnerable ones, apart from West Ham, are those drawn together (Ipswich v Sunderland). That leaves three worth considering for a bet, all away - Preston at Swansea, Millwall at Telford and Sheffield United at Nottingham Forest. United are the best price against a Forest side who have plummeted into a relegation battle after a run of 12 league games without a win. Their only respite came in the third-round 1-0 home win over West Brom, but United are unlikely to slip up.

The tie of the round is undoubtedly Liverpool v Newcastle, one of tonight's live games. Preference for the win would go to Newcastle, but their high draw ratio and poor record at Anfield (last season's Premiership draw was their first point there in eight seasons) reduces confidence in them.

In the other all-Premiership matches, Arsenal look a good bet on the handicap at home to Middlesbrough. The midweek Carling Cup tie was won 1-0 by Boro, but Arsenal fielded an under-strength side then and the big guns will be wheeled out again tonight. It is only a fortnight since Arsenal won 4-1 in the Premiership encounter at Highbury, which made it seven consecutive victories against Boro, in which the Gunners have won by two goals or more on five occasions.

Followers of Manchester City must be frustrated at their inability to win, but their high draw ratio in recent weeks still suggests they do not need much improvement to turn the corner. They should be stronger favourites at home to Tottenham, whose away record is poor.

Everton might be a little too short at home to Fulham, but the visitors' declining away form makes them hard to fancy with any conviction.

Best homes: Ipswich, Manchester City, Santander, Sevilla.

Best aways: Sheffield United, Inter Milan, Juventus.

High goals: Ipswich v Sunderland, Liverpool v Newcastle, Manchester City v Tottenham.

Low goals: Siena v Perugia, Sampdoria v Reggina, Chievo v Brescia.