No place for sentiment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am

When it comes to the FA Cup, punters would do well to stick to form, which means backing United and Arsenal

Arsenal and Manchester United have only the FA Cup left to fight over this season, and they should set up a mouthwatering decider with victory in the semi-finals this weekend.

Romantics will be cheering for Blackburn and Newcastle, but there is little room for sentiment in the FA Cup nowadays. Upsets are rare, especially at this stage of the competition, and the underdogs must find a big turnaround in form if they are to triumph this weekend.

Arsenal have beaten Blackburn home and away this season without conceding a goal - indeed, Blackburn haven't scored in their last four outings against Arsenal, losing all four, and it is hard to see them getting a goal. The Gunners' 1-0 away win came only four weeks ago and they have a little extra advantage now, with tonight's game played on neutral territory.

Similarly, Manchester United looked far superior to Newcastle with a 3-1 away win in November and have a clear edge for tomorrow night's game, on the same neutral turf at the Millennium Stadium. Newcastle's defensive frailty against high-class teams was evident again in their 4-1 midweek defeat at Sporting Lisbon, and Graeme Souness will find it hard to lift them after that dispiriting Uefa Cup exit.

Favourite backers might want to ponder the statistics before plunging in at short odds, however. Although the last semi-final draw was back in 2000, none of the past 14 semi-finals has been settled by more than a single goal, so we can expect closer results than the odds suggest.

The most common result is 1-0 (five of the last six semi-finals, and half of the last 14), followed by 2-1 (four times in the last 14) and 0-0 (three times). That makes bets on low goals, 1-0 and 0-0 all worth considering, but there is another interesting statistic concerning these results. In all but one of the recent 1-0s, the goal has been scored in the first half, so favourite backers could add value by backing Arsenal and Manchester United on the HaFu to be winning at half-time and full-time.

First-half goals are very common in FA Cup semi-finals, but a goalless first half is a strong pointer towards a stalemate at full-time - in the past 10 seasons, six semi-finals have been 0-0 at half-time and three of those have produced the same score after 90 minutes. Backing the draw at half-time looks a good option if no goals have been scored at that stage. Odds in the region of 2.6-2.7 would be reasonable, judged on the Jockey Club's opening quotes for the draw in this weekend's semi-finals.

There are only six Premiership games tonight and, with Chelsea having the weekend off, the main focus is on the relegation battle and the race for the fourth Champions League place.

The big relegation clash is Crystal Palace v Norwich, with the home team looking good value for an important win. Palace have performed best against their fellow strugglers this season and should add to Norwich's poor away form, which has yielded only seven goals and no wins in 16 games.

Liverpool and Tottenham, who clash at Anfield, have the chance to close the gap on fourth-placed Everton, who aren't in action this weekend. Liverpool's home record is first-rate and they look reasonable value, given the doubts over Tottenham's recent away form.

Sixth-placed Bolton still harbour European ambitions and they will fancy their chances at faltering Charlton. They are one of the best handicap bets of the weekend along with Manchester City, who have looked good under Stuart Pearce's managership and rate highly for at least a draw against Fulham.

There is a full Premiership programme to come in midweek, and punters might want to hold on to some of their stake money until then. The highlight is the live clash between Chelsea and Arsenal, though this match has lost some of its edge due to Chelsea's huge lead at the top of the table. If they win on Wednesday, they will need a maximum of two points from their last five games to secure the title.

The most solid midweek bets appear to be Bolton (v Southampton), Tottenham (v West Brom) and Blackburn (v Crystal Palace). All the home sides have a clear edge on the ratings - Spurs, for example, are unbeaten in three games against West Brom this season, including an ultimately clear-cut win in the only encounter at White Hart Lane, which came in the FA Cup fourth round two months ago.

The Spanish title race is more interesting after Real Madrid's 4-2 win over Barcelona at the Bernabeu last weekend, but Barca should have no problem maintaining their six-point lead when they host Getafe (the Primera Liga's second-worst away side) tomorrow night. Real also have an easy-looking fixture at lowly Levante.

The weekend's other live games from Spain - Atletico Madrid v Espanyol and Villarreal v Betis - look much more competitive. All those teams are in the top eight and vying for places in Europe, but it is not surprising that both home teams should be odds-on. The visitors are inconsistent on the road, while Atletico and Villarreal are Spain's best home teams bar Barcelona and Real Madrid.

It usually pays to be wary of teams who have little or nothing to play for towards the end of the season, but German mid-table side Kaiserslautern look worth chancing in tomorrow night's live game from the Bundesliga.

Bochum, their opponents, are in desperate need of points in their relegation battle, but their dismal tally of just one point from their last 10 away games indicates that Kaiserslautern would have to under-perform badly to disappoint their backers.

Best homes: Crystal Palace, Kaiserslautern, Bolton, Tottenham, Blackburn.

Best aways: Bolton.

High goals: Fulham v Manchester City.

Low goals: Arsenal v Blackburn, Newcastle v Manchester United.


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 Crystal Palace

(v Norwich), Kaiserslautern

(v Bochum), Bolton

(v Southampton), Tottenham

(v West Brom), Blackburn

(v Crystal Palace).