Minnows face reality check against big guns
Even mid-ranking Premiership sides can afford to rest players
Fantasy and reality clash head-on in this weekend's English FA Cup third round, which oddly enough has produced no all-Premiership ties. Instead, most of England's big clubs have been handed virtual byes to the fourth round. There is non-league opposition for Manchester United, at home to Exeter, and Newcastle, who travel to Yeading, while Chelsea host League Two outfit Scunthorpe, who lie 69 places below the Premiership leaders in the league ladder. Middlesbrough, Charlton and Southampton also face League Two opposition.
The minnows will harbour the fantasy of adding their names to the giant-killing folklore for which the FA Cup is famed. Harsh reality is likely to hit home, though, because it is a myth that the FA Cup's recent past is littered with giant-killing acts. In the past 10 seasons, only one team from the bottom rung of the league ladder (what is now known as League Two) have won away to Premiership opposition - that was Bristol Rovers in 2002 at Derby, who were destined for relegation that season.
The stats improve only marginally for teams from higher leagues - in general, you can expect a Premiership team to beat lower-league opposition at home around 80 per cent of the time. No wonder, then, that Arsenal, Manchester United, Spurs, Birmingham, Chelsea, Charlton and Portsmouth are such short odds this weekend.
The closest-looking ties - certainly for betting purposes - are those involving Premiership strugglers against decent teams from the Championship. Premiership bottom club West Brom visit Preston, who are ninth in the Championship and have a formidable home record with 10 wins out of 14 this season. Third-bottom Norwich go to West Ham (sixth in the Championship) and fourth-bottom Crystal Palace visit Sunderland (third in the Championship). West Brom, Norwich and Palace were all in the Championship last season and it is interesting to note that none of them could register an away win against tonight's rivals - West Brom lost 3-0 at Preston, Norwich drew 1-1 with West Ham (home and away) and Palace lost 2-1 at Sunderland on two occasions.
Those are tight-looking ties, reflected in a handicap line of zero in all three cases, but four other Premiership sides are well worth considering against Championship opposition. Blackburn visit Cardiff, who lie four places off the bottom in the Championship and look unlikely to match a team who have lost just two of their last 12 Premiership games.
Fulham go to Watford, who have already knocked out Premiership sides Southampton and Portsmouth in this season's League Cup but might have their minds on the midweek semi-final against Liverpool in that competition. Fulham are available on the handicap and so too are Bolton and Aston Villa, which makes them reasonably safe bets even though they travel to high-flying Championship opposition.
Bolton visit Championship leaders Ipswich, who are dangerous but might struggle to contain the Premiership side if Bolton can reproduce the form they showed in their midweek win at Birmingham.
Aston Villa go to Sheffield United (fourth in the Championship), who have earned a reputation as a formidable cup side under Neil Warnock but have won only five of their 14 home league games this season. Villa have won only once on the road, but most of their defeats have come against the better Premiership sides.
The proviso with all these games is to check the team sheet before placing bets because even the middle-ranking Premiership sides tend to rest players for FA Cup games nowadays. Bolton were a glaring example last season and it cost them dearly with a third-round exit against lower-league team Tranmere.
If Sam Allardyce puts out a second-string side again, the advice is to switch from Bolton to a straight win bet on Blackburn.
If there is to be a real upset, Northampton looks the most likely venue. The League Two side host Southampton, who have not won away this season and are low on confidence after slumping to second-bottom in the Premiership table.
Spain's Primera Liga resumes this weekend, with the highlight being the live Madrid derby between Atletico and Real. The best bets in Spain are high-flying Sevilla, who should have no trouble at home to Getafe, and Espanyol in their home match against Osasuna.
Italy's Serie A also has a full weekend programme, while the midweek focus will be on the Carling Cup semi-finals - Liverpool v Watford, followed by the mouthwatering clash between Chelsea and Manchester United. Again, it is advisable to check the team sheets before placing bets, but home wins look the call in both ties.
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 Sevilla, Espanyol.
$200 handicap Aston Villa, Bolton, Fulham.