with Nick Pulford
The upcoming big cup finals show the two sides of the English Premier League this season.
On the one hand is the English domination of the Champions League, exemplified by Manchester United and Chelsea facing each other on Wednesday in the first all-English final, and on the other is the unusual absence of a Big Four team from tonight's FA Cup final, which pits Portsmouth from the Premier League against Championship side Cardiff City.
Perhaps there is some link between those two factors, with the Big Four arguably focusing more on the Premier League and Champions League - this season, remember, Arsenal pushed forward as serious challengers in both competitions, while Rafa Benitez's Liverpool put up their usual strong showing in the Champions League.
More likely, however, is that the early exit of the Big Four teams from the FA Cup will turn out to be a blip and that normal service will be resumed next season. That means Portsmouth and Cardiff must grab this once-in-a-generation opportunity to win the FA Cup without having to overcome a Big Four team in the final.
Portsmouth have several key factors in their favour, not least the fact that they are a league apart from Cardiff and in the league structure finished 24 places ahead. The higher-placed team in the league structure have won 14 of the past 19 finals, and the only two lower-placed teams to have won in the past 12 years had finished in the top three in the Premier League.
Another positive for Portsmouth is their excellent away record. The ability to produce top form away from the comforts of home is often a deciding factor in finals played on neutral territory, and that cannot be relied on with Cardiff, who ranked 12th on away form in the Championship with just four wins out of 23 (though they drew 12).
Cardiff are trying to become the first team from the second tier of English football to lift the FA Cup since West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0 in the 1980 final and history suggests they are not of the required standard to produce an upset. The era of the giant-killer in the FA Cup final was 1973-80 when Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham all triumphed for the old Second Division. None of the three finished lower than seventh in their division, however, which means that they would have been in contention for a play-off place in the modern-day format. Cardiff were six places off a play-off spot and were never really a serious contender for promotion, arguably because they became preoccupied with the FA Cup.
On any measure of form, Portsmouth deserve to be stronger favourites and they look decent value to win in 90 minutes. Since 1973, seven teams from the second tier have contested the FA Cup final and only once has extra time been necessary. While the last two finals have gone to extra time, the previous 12 were all settled in 90 minutes.
Going back to 1973, 22 finals have been decided in 90 minutes and a notable factor is that 18 of the 22 wins have been to nil, with 15 out of 22 having under 2.5 goals. Portsmouth have made a habit of winning 1-0 in the FA Cup this season (doing so in four out of five rounds so far, winning 2-1 on the other occasion) and another narrow victory wouldn't be a surprise, so 1-0 is worth considering for bigger odds than the straight Portsmouth win.
Away form is a significant factor in the Champions League final too, as the finalists with the best away record in that season's Champions League have lifted the trophy in each of the past nine seasons. On that basis, United have the edge on Wednesday as they have won three and drawn three of their six Champions League away games this season, whereas Chelsea have won two, drawn three and lost one.
That might seem a small difference, but this is a game of tight margins and the little things can make a big difference. United are bidding to go through the competition undefeated, as they did in their treble-winning year of 1999, and that is another factor in their favour - in the past 10 seasons, five teams have gone into the final with fewer defeats than their opponents in that season's competition, and every time the team with fewest defeats have come out on top.
Chelsea have some plus points too, however. The most significant is their excellent record against United since Roman Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge, with six wins, six draws and just two defeats in 14 games. One of the draws was turned into a win in extra time of last year's FA Cup final, and both defeats were at Old Trafford. It is also noteworthy that, in the two previous Champions League finals where both finalists came from the same country, the winners were the lower-placed team from the domestic league.
United are more likely to be able to field their strongest line-up on Wednesday, however, and they are favoured on the handicap in a tight-looking match.
In the past 20 FA Cup finals, there have been this many times when at least one team haven't scored