Manchester United face a crucial week that could see them take big steps on three trophy fronts and there must be some concern that their recent performances have been slightly below their usual high standards.
Okay, so they won the League Cup final on penalties, but they were held goalless for 120 minutes by Tottenham, who arguably had the better chances to win the game in regulation time. Then they allowed Newcastle to take the lead in their midweek Premier League game and, while the champions came back to win 2-1, it was a far from impressive performance.
Squad rotation may have had something to do with United's disjointed displays, but these games were against the teams currently 13th and 16th in the Premier League. This week's games pit them against 10th-placed Fulham away in the FA Cup quarter-final, at home to third-placed Liverpool in the league next Saturday and, in between, against Serie A leaders Inter Milan at Old Trafford in the second leg of their Champions League clash.
United's recent form won't be good enough to pass those tests, but Sir Alex Ferguson says March and April are the months that decide trophies and he expects his men to be up for it. In each of the past two seasons, United have won 10 games in all competitions during those two months (out of 15 last season, at a win rate of 67 per cent, and out of 14 the season before - 71 per cent).
Interestingly, they failed to win at this stage of the FA Cup in both seasons, being knocked out at home by Portsmouth last season and being held 2-2 at Middlesbrough the previous season, before winning the replay 1-0. Perhaps that was a sign of fixture congestion taking its toll, compounded by Ferguson's view that the FA Cup comes lower down the list of priorities than the Premier League and Champions League.
That gives Fulham a reasonable chance of causing an upset today by derailing United's bid for a clean sweep of silverware, and the hosts will take further encouragement from their good home record. Only United and Liverpool have a higher home points average in the Premier League and only the two Manchester clubs have won more home games. Most of Fulham's home points have come against teams below them in the table, however, with a less impressive two wins, two draws and one defeat against teams above them. On the plus side no visiting team have beaten them by more than a goal, so perhaps the best bet for United backers is to back the draw on the handicap HAD. Fulham are even-money on the handicap HAD to take the tie to a replay at least and that's a reasonable wager based on their solid home record and the possibility that United might not be at their strongest as they look towards the midweek showdown with Inter.
For that match, the stats favour United. In the Champions League knockout rounds, teams that drew 0-0 away in the first leg have a 65 per cent qualification rate and United went through from that position in last year's semi-final against Barcelona when they won the second leg 1-0. An away goal for Inter would change the complexion of the tie, but United's excellent defence gives them every reason to be hopeful of knocking out Jose Mourinho's team.
Similar percentage chances of progress can be given to Chelsea and Arsenal on their trips to Italy, while it would be a major turn-up if Liverpool failed to progress from their position of strength against Real Madrid. All four English clubs made the quarter-finals last season and throughout the knockout rounds none were beaten by a club from outside the Premier League - a dominant position that this year's early results have done nothing to dispel. The best match bet is Liverpool to beat Real Madrid again. Under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool have won 16 out of 22 at Anfield in the Champions League proper, including six out of eight in knockout rounds, which indicates that they are overpriced.
Three bets appeal in England today, starting with Sunderland at home to Tottenham. Sunderland's form under Ricky Sbragia is solid, with five of their six defeats coming against teams currently in the top six. Outside that group, they have lost only one out of 10 (away to Blackburn in the FA Cup) and at home they have won four out of seven in all games under Sbragia (losing only to Aston Villa), all of which makes them a decent handicap bet.
In the Championship, high-flying Birmingham and Cardiff, who have the division's best home records against teams in the bottom half of the table, can beat 22nd-placed Southampton and 14th-placed Doncaster respectively. Both of the visiting teams have improved in recent weeks and won't be pushovers, but Birmingham and Cardiff are maintaining their form and look overpriced.
The best bet in the European leagues is Sevilla at home to Almeria in Spain. The clincher here is Almeria's poor away record (third-worst in La Liga) and their failure to keep a clean sheet in 12 away games. Sevilla have won seven out of nine at home when scoring.
Hard to stop
Straight victories for Manchester United in recent meetings over a misfiring Fulham side: 8
Of the last 15 league and cup meetings between Everton and Middlesbrough, this many have had under 2.5 goals: 14
Sunderland, Birmingham, Cardiff, Catania, Sochaux, Sevilla.
Jose Mourinho's teams have scored in nine out of 13 meetings with Manchester United and have never lost when getting on the scoresheet.
$200 Sunderland (handicap, Sat), Birmingham (HW, Sat), Cardiff (HW, Sat), Sevilla (HW, Sun). Last week: two winning bets out of nine.
FA Cup quarter-finals:
Coventry City v Chelsea
Fulham v Manchester United
Sunderland v Tottenham
FA Cup fifth round:
Arsenal v Burnley
Everton v Middlesbrough