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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

Manchester United are not quite out for the count in the Premier League title race, despite falling five points behind leaders Arsenal, and they have the chance to hit back with a knockout blow against the Gunners in tonight's FA Cup fifth-round glamour tie at Old Trafford.

These clubs have quite a history in the FA Cup, though it is rare for them to meet so early in the competition. Since Arsene Wenger took charge at Arsenal, these teams have met in two semi-finals (with United winning both), the 2005 final (won by Arsenal on penalties) and one previous fifth-round tie, also at Old Trafford.

Arsenal won 2-0 in that fifth-round tie, en route to victory in the 2003 final. In fact, on the last three occasions that these teams have met before the final, the victors have gone on to lift the trophy. It is also noteworthy that Arsenal went to Old Trafford in 2003 in a similar position as they are now, leading the table (on that occasion by three points) with United in second place.

In the Wenger-era FA Cup clashes, the higher-placed team (in the current table or, in the case of their 2005 final showdown, in the end-of-season table) have won three of the four meetings - the exception was the 2004 semi-final when United triumphed over the title-bound Arsenal Invincibles.

Arsenal's current superiority in the table implies a slight edge, and that is reinforced by their recent record against United - starting with the 2005 FA Cup final, they have lost only one of six in league and cup, and they won on their most recent visit to Old Trafford.

There is hardly anything between the sides on current form, however. Since the turn of the year, Arsenal have won seven out of 10 in all competitions and lost only once, while United have won six out of eight and also lost once (the defeats for both teams came against their bitterest local rivals).

With this encounter looking very tight, it could pay to follow the low-scoring trend of their FA Cup meetings. Including replays, they have had five matches in the Wenger era and all five have had two goals or fewer in 90 minutes' play. Going low on the HiLo is the advised play on this match.

The stakes for Arsenal and United will be high again when the Champions League resumes next week. On paper United have the easier fixture in the last 16 against Lyon, while Arsenal host reigning champions Milan, and another factor is that reigning league champions have a much better record in the Champions League than emerging teams.

Since the Champions League was expanded in 1997-98 to include non-champions, a reigning national champion has reached the final seven times out of 10, winning five times and losing twice. As for champions-elect (who hadn't won their domestic title the previous season), they have reached the final four times, winning three times and losing once.

Another notable factor in the Champions League is that form in the competition itself, rather than in the domestic leagues, is the most reliable guide. That explains why Liverpool and Arsenal have represented England in the last three finals, while at the same time finishing fifth, fourth and third in the Premier League table.

I have a ratings system based on Champions League form that has proved a good guide in recent seasons. Teams are given a rating from nought to five, and in the last eight seasons at least one top-rated team (with a five-star rating) have reached the final, winning four times. Teams rated four or five usually dominate the latter stages, filling 24 of the 32 semi-final slots in the past eight seasons.

This season's five-star teams are Chelsea, Inter, Barcelona, Manchester United, Sevilla and Milan. Real Madrid, Arsenal and Roma are rated four, with Liverpool, Porto, Olympiakos and Lyon rated three.

From this stage onwards last season, the higher-rated team won seven out of 11 ties when paired against a lower-rated team. Teams with a higher rating than their opponents in next week's ties are Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Barcelona, Manchester United, Sevilla and Milan, so those seven have a good chance of progressing to the quarter-finals.

The closest ties on the ratings are Roma v Real Madrid and Arsenal v Milan, while Liverpool's excellent record in this competition under Rafael Benitez must be respected when they host Inter in next week's first leg at Anfield.

The ties at Arsenal and Liverpool are likely to be tight and are among the best bets for low scores, along with the matches at Olympiakos, Celtic and Fenerbahce. Schalke v Porto is the best bet for a high-scoring match.

The overall winner is difficult to predict, with so many hurdles to overcome before the final in Moscow on May 21, but three against the field at this stage are Chelsea, Barcelona and Sevilla. Those three rate the strongest chances to reach the quarter-finals as teams from the big countries are rarely knocked out by teams from outside Europe's top-five leagues. Sevilla, currently joint-seventh in the betting for the Champions League, could be this season's surprise package.

Goal a game

Minutes per goal in the last five FA Cup meetings between Manchester United and Arsenal: 90

Happy days

Days since Swansea's last defeat in League One, and the leaders should get a victory at Port Vale: 92

The Real deal

Wins from 20 visits to bottom-half finishers in the last two seasons for Real Madrid: 15

Time flies

Minutes since Bilbao's last away goal in La Liga, with Atletico Madrid a good bet to beat them tomorrow night: 361


Since the extra knockout round was introduced in the Champions League in 2003/04, teams away in the first leg have gone through to the quarter-finals 24 times out of 32

The pretenders

Number of non-champions among the last 16 of the Champions League - Arsenal are the only non-champion currently top of their domestic league: 8


Hertha Berlin, Frankfurt, Cheltenham, Northampton, Swansea, Southend, Real Madrid, Atalanta, Deportivo, Bayern, Atletico Madrid.

Best bets: $150 Northampton (HW, Sat), Swansea (AW, Sat), Southend (HW, Sat), Real Madrid (AW, Sat), Atletico Madrid (HW, Sun).

Last week: three winning bets out of seven



FA Cup fifth round

Bristol Rovers v Southampton

Cardiff v Wolverhampton

Liverpool v Barnsley

Coventry v West Brom

Chelsea v Huddersfield

Manchester United v Arsenal


FA Cup fifth round

Preston v Portsmouth

Sheffield United v Middlesbrough