Diluted Blues and Reds no shoo-in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am

The big FA Cup clashes could hinge on the team lineups, with Chelsea and Manchester United likely to have one eye on their tough Champions League encounters next week.

Both clubs have put out under-strength teams in most of their cup games this season and the likelihood is that they will do so again, even though they have tricky away ties against Newcastle and Everton. That makes betting on United and Chelsea a risky proposition, although punters can be pretty confident that both sides will go for a win in an effort to avoid a fixture backlog in the coming weeks.

Chelsea's first-choice team slaughtered Newcastle 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in December but a better guide to tomorrow night's match might be the League Cup tie at St James' Park a month earlier, when Chelsea rested several regulars and came out on top only after extra-time.

Everton held a Roy Keane-less United 0-0 at Old Trafford in August and have a good chance of doing so again at least, especially if the Irish midfielder is missing again. It is a toss-up, but Everton and Newcastle might prove best on the handicap.

Short odds abound in the FA Cup, with seven of the eight favourites priced at 1.90 or under. The exception is Blackburn, who visit Championship side Burnley, and Mark Hughes' team represent the best value on the FA Cup programme.

Burnley knocked out Liverpool in the FA Cup third round and Aston Villa in the League Cup, both at home, but they lost 3-0 when Tottenham visited in the League Cup and there is no doubt that Blackburn are overpriced if they reproduce their normal form.

The odds are too short on all four of the Premiership sides who are at home to lower-league opposition, though it is hard to envisage upsets, particularly in the Tottenham v Nottingham Forest match. Leicester are worth considering on the handicap for their visit to Charlton, where they are not as outclassed as the odds suggest, but the best handicap option is Fulham at Bolton, which is the FA Cup match with the highest likelihood of a draw.

The bets of the week are Villarreal in the Primera Liga, Wolfsburg and Bochum in the Bundesliga, and West Brom in the midweek Premiership game.

Villarreal have won their past five home games and, fresh from a good away draw against Dynamo Kiev in the Uefa Cup, should dispose of Atletico Madrid, as they did 2-0 at home in the Intertoto Cup last August. Wolfsburg have been wobbling after a good start, but they are still a formidable home side and should recover their poise at home to bottom club Hansa Rostock. Bochum also remain a decent home side and can get the better of Freiburg in the big relegation clash.

There is also plenty at stake at the bottom of the Premiership when West Brom host Southampton on Tuesday night. West Brom, whose five home defeats have come against top-eight sides, have a good chance of victory against their fellow strugglers, who are winless on the road.

Most of next week's Champions League showdowns are closely matched and would be worthy of the final itself. On past evidence, the group winners (all of whom play away first at this stage) are favoured, which suggests two main ways for punters to play. The first is to back the away teams getting a start on the handicap and the second is to go for low-scoring games across the board, in the expectation that teams will want to give nothing away.

Best homes: Bochum, Wolfsburg, Villarreal, West Brom.

Best aways: Blackburn.

High goals: Hamburg v Kaiserslautern.

Low goals: All eight Champions League games.

Thousand dollar wager

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.

This week:

$200 win Bochum.

$100 low goals in all eight Champions League games.