'Last chances' loom for Fergie

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 March, 2004, 12:00am

With Arsenal nine points clear in the Premiership only the FA Cup and Champions League offer realistic hope

Manchester United are under the TV spotlight tonight in the first of two big games at Old Trafford which will arguably advance or end their trophy hopes for the season.

The reigning English champions take on Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-finals, ahead of their attempt to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Porto in their midweek Champions League tie.

United v Fulham opens a cracking weekend of live action, with all four FA Cup games on TV, plus seven more from around Europe. All 11 live matches are previewed inside.

With Arsenal nine points clear in the Premiership, only the FA Cup and Champions League offer Sir Alex Ferguson's team any realistic hope of a trophy - though Arsenal could yet thwart those ambitions, too, as they are well placed in both competitions. United have started 2004 poorly by their standards (six wins, three draws and three defeats from 12 games in all competitions) and both of this week's opponents are capable of knocking them out.

That makes United a poor bet at their usual short odds - a draw or the handicap draw look the value options in both the Fulham and Porto games - though it is easy to overreact to their bad spell.

In fact, they had an identical run less than a year ago. In a 12-game spell during February-March last year, United also won six and lost three - to Arsenal, Liverpool and Deportivo La Coruna (going out of the FA Cup and losing the League Cup final in the process). Rio Ferdinand, incidentally, played in all but one of those games. United responded to that run with eight wins and a draw from their last 10 matches of the season, losing only at Real Madrid, and it would be foolish to think that they couldn't hit such heights again. Again, you only have to look back to November-December this season to find United recording 11 wins and two defeats from 13 in all competitions.

To return to a regular theme, seven of the eight FA Cup quarter-finalists come from the top 30 teams (the 20 Premiership clubs, plus the top 10 in the First Division, and the safest bet should be in the only real mismatch - Millwall, of the First Division, at home to Tranmere, 33 league places below them in the Second Division. The stats say that the 'top 30' generally lose only to their own, so Millwall should progress in tomorrow's early live game. Form points that way with Millwall currently performing much better than Tranmere.

Arsenal are a similar price to win at Portsmouth later tonight and should oblige. Portsmouth are capable of performing well at home and this could be a tighter game than expected if Arsenal rest Thierry Henry (as they have in recent cup games). Tomorrow's late game, Sunderland v Sheffield United, looks one to leave alone, though a low goals tally looks a safe call.

The only Premiership game this weekend is Birmingham v Bolton, with the home team fancied to follow up their midweek win over Carling Cup winners Middlesbrough by defeating last week's beaten finalists. Birmingham are scoring more goals now (at least two in five of their last six at home against Premiership opposition) and that, allied to their solid defence, makes them a decent betting proposition.

Real Madrid - like Arsenal in England - have sprinted clear in the Spanish title race and tonight's live action from the Primera Liga focuses on the crunch games at the top. Real are away to Racing Santander, who have a sporting chance of at least a draw against a team still struggling on the road.

Real manager Carlos Queiroz has said he always tries to put out his strongest team, but he may not be able to resist the temptation to rest key players ahead of the midweek Champions League clash with Bayern Munich, which reduces confidence in Real at short odds.

Valencia and Deportivo, Real's closest challengers, clash at the Mestalla. Victory for either would probably turn the championship into a two-horse race, but the match looks destined for a draw, which is likely to be only to Real's advantage.

For home bankers in Spain, look no further than Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, two in-form and improving sides playing teams on the slide. Barcelona create enough chances to be worth a shot on the handicap at -1 against Mallorca, who have failed to score in three of their last five games. Bilbao are a low-scoring side and, while they should have no trouble beating Valladolid, are best restricted to a straight win bet. Real Betis, another in-form side, are worth considering for an away win at Albacete. Betis, who lie in eighth place, have an exceptional record against bottom-half sides (nine wins and four draws from 14), while Albacete (16th) have a correspondingly poor record against top-half teams (just one win and three draws from 14).

The big live game in Italy is tomorrow night's clash between Roma and Inter Milan, while leaders AC Milan face Sampdoria in the earlier live match.

Both games should produce home wins and Roma are attractive odds to make their excellent home form count by covering the handicap at -1. Inter have become draw specialists during their recent run, but last week's 3-1 home defeat by Brescia suggests they are ill-equipped to cope with Roma, who have scored at least two goals in nine of their 12 home league matches.

For a straight win, Chievo look overpriced for their home game with lowly Empoli. Chievo's home form (three wins, three draws, five defeats) doesn't look great on paper, but they have played mostly top-half teams so far - their home record against bottom-half sides is played four, won three, lost one (to much-improved Lecce). Empoli's claims rest mainly on the fact that they won 1-0 at Inter in January, but that can be dismissed as a freak result because, apart from that, they have managed just two draws in their other 11 away games (both against fellow bottom-six sides).

In a week which offers few value bets for the straight win, AC Milan v Sampdoria is one of several good options for a low-scoring game. Sampdoria play it very tight on their travels and eight of their 11 away league games have had fewer than three goals - with Milan content to do just enough to win, an open game would be a surprise.

Schalke and Stuttgart, who predictably shared a 0-0 last week in the German Bundesliga, test their defences against Freiburg and Borussia Dortmund respectively and have every prospect of adding to their recent runs of low-scoring games. Other low-goals options are Osasuna (as usual) v Real Sociedad and Sunderland v Sheffield United.

Sevilla v Villarreal is an appealing price for a high-goals match - their three meetings this season have produced six, four and two goals. Villarreal hardly know how to play a tight game (seven of their last 10 in the league have produced at least three goals) and Sevilla's attack should relish an open match.

Best homes: Birmingham, Chievo, Bilbao, Roma.

Best aways: Bochum, Parma, Real Betis, Werder Bremen.

High goals: Barcelona v Mallorca, Sevilla v Villarreal, Roma v Inter Milan.

Low goals: Dortmund v Stuttgart, Schalke v Freiburg, AC Milan v Sampdoria.