Chance to exploit leaky United

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am

City are no slouches in attack and if Anelka is fit, they can be dangerous

The FA Cup fifth round takes centre stage again this weekend, with five of the eight matches live on TV. The appetiser is tonight's Manchester derby, but there is an even more mouth-watering main course tomorrow when Arsenal host Chelsea in another mammoth showdown.

The Manchester clash is set against a backdrop of crisis, which makes it harder to call than usual. United are facing turmoil off the pitch, with all the talk of takeovers and demonstrations, and their Rio Ferdinand-less defence is not doing much to ease the pressure on the field. Wolves, Southampton, Everton and Middlesbrough hardly have the most frightening attacks in the Premiership, but they have put nine goals past United in 31/2 games without Ferdinand, resulting in two defeats.

City's attacking capability is also better than any of the sides United have met so far without Ferdinand, but they are in a crisis of their own. Their 2-1 midweek defeat at Liverpool made it 15 games without a win in the Premiership, though they have knocked out two Premiership sides (Leicester, after a replay, and Spurs, after that now famous comeback) to reach the fifth round of the Cup.

City have not been playing as badly as many reports suggest - they were on top for a good part of their 3-1 defeat at United in December - but their own defence looks ill-equipped to cope with United's attack. If Nicolas Anelka is out again, the balance should tip towards United, but there is no standout bet for the match.

One defensive mistake could decide the Arsenal v Chelsea match - as it did in October when Carlo Cudicini's slip allowed Thierry Henry to score the winner in Arsenal's 2-1 league win at Highbury. If that kind of error can be eliminated, Chelsea should be able to turn the tide of history between these sides (especially in recent FA Cup meetings) and get at least a draw (as they did in a 2-2 here in last season's sixth round, before losing the replay 3-1).

The other all-Premiership tie is Liverpool v Portsmouth, tomorrow's late live game, and it appears more clear-cut in favour of the home team. Liverpool have performed well in recent games against Everton and Bolton without getting full reward, but they should have no problem disposing of Portsmouth if they reproduce the standard which saw them defeat Newcastle 2-1 in the fourth round.

Portsmouth, too, have been unlucky in some recent games - notably in their 4-3 defeat at Spurs last week - but their defence seems unlikely to cope with a rampant Steven Gerrard.

In the past two rounds, this guide has highlighted the likelihood of strong showings from those teams who were in the top 10 of the First Division at the start of the third round - in fact, four of those 10 have reached this stage.

The stats say that those 10 First Division teams are most likely to be knocked out only by another member of the 10 or a Premiership side - that has been the case with four of the six who have gone out so far. Those stats suggest Sheffield United, who host Second Division Colchester, and Millwall, at home to Burnley (19th in Division One), are good home bets. Millwall stand out as a straight win, while Sheffield United might be worth risking on the handicap (though there is a risk because they have lost their last three in the First Division).

Likewise, Premiership sides are likely to fall only to teams in the top 30 (the Premiership and the First Division top 10). Besides the three all-Premiership ties, the top-flight teams in jeopardy are Birmingham, who travel to Sunderland, and Fulham, who host West Ham.

Both West Ham and Sunderland were Premiership teams last season and, despite being forced to sell some of their best players after relegation, they remain close to top-flight standard and are pushing hard for a promotion place - they are fifth and sixth respectively in the First Division.

West Ham have performed well in cup ties against Premiership teams this season - they took Spurs to extra-time in the Carling Cup and beat Wolves 3-1 in the FA Cup fourth round, both away. The London derby factor may help to narrow the gap further with Fulham, against whom they took four points last season. It is hard to go against Fulham, however, as their home record remains exceptionally strong (their four defeats have come against sides above them in the Premiership.)

Birmingham may be more vulnerable to an 'upset' simply by virtue of being drawn away to Sunderland. Having said that, Birmingham did win home and away against Sunderland in last season's Premiership (when, in theory, there was less of a class gap between them than there is now).

The league game of the weekend is Real Madrid v Valencia, the top two in Spain. Real should win based on their outstanding home form and, in particular, their home-and-away successes over Valencia in last month's Copa del Rey quarter-finals. They have won their last five meetings with Valencia at the Bernabeu, by an aggregate of 13 goals to two.

A better bet than Real at similar odds are Barcelona, who host Atletico Madrid in another of tomorrow's live games from Spain. This is a close contest on paper (fourth versus sixth), but Barcelona appear to have improved with the addition of on-loan Edgar Davids, while Atletico have a poor away record.

Lazio, arguably the best side in Italy on current form, rate the best bet on the handicap in Serie A at home to third-bottom Empoli. Lazio's 4-0 midweek cup win over AC Milan took their unbeaten run to eight games (despite six of those coming against top-eight sides) and they shouldn't need to come close to that standard to account for Empoli, who average just 0.5 goals on their travels.

Milan should bounce back from their cup exit with victory at fourth-bottom Lecce, though there is just enough doubt about their ability to cover the handicap that it might be best to restrict the bet to a straight win. Roma also have to be worth considering on the handicap at bottom club Ancona.

The best bet in Germany is Hamburg, even though their opponents, Wolfsburg, are one place above them in the table. Hamburg have been climbing steadily since Klaus Toppmoller took over as coach three months ago there is every reason to expect they can return to their great home form of last season (13 wins out of 17; second only to Bayern Munich). Wolfsburg, by contrast, have a poor away record and have suffered two defeats since the winter break.

Freiburg, who boast the third-best home record in Germany, can bounce back from last week's 4-1 defeat at Hansa Rostock when they host bottom club Hertha Berlin today. Freiburg have won seven out of their last nine at home (the only defeats came against the top two, Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich) and should account for Hertha, who have lost heavily in four of their last five away matches.

Rostock have a sporting chance of winning again this week, at Eintracht Frankfurt. Rostock have lost just twice in their last 10 - against Werder Bremen and Stuttgart - and are unbeaten in four away games against lower-half opposition (one win, three draws).

Bundesliga leaders Werder Bremen did not cover the handicap at Monchengladbach last week (indeed, they only just scraped the win), but they should be backed to establish clear superiority over Kaiserslautern tomorrow. Bremen have won seven of their last nine home games by two goals or more (the only failures coming against Bayern Munich and Stuttgart).

Best homes: Freiburg, Hamburg, Millwall, Lazio, Barcelona.

Best aways: Rostock, Sampdoria, AC Milan.

High goals: Manchester United v Manchester City, Liverpool v Portsmouth, Real Madrid v Valencia.

Low goals: Cologne v Schalke, Stuttgart v Monchengladbach, Deportivo v Osasuna.