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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 January, 2010, 12:00am

The FA Cup has its big launch this weekend, when the teams from England's top two divisions enter the competition at the third round, and one of the key talking points is whether the threat to the dominance of the big-four clubs will spill over from the Premier League.

Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa are making life uncomfortable for the big four in the Premier League, and the betting suggests the elites' stranglehold on the FA Cup also faces a stronger challenge this year.

The big four - Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool - are the top four in betting on the FA Cup winners, but the emerging powers of Tottenham and Manchester City are closer than usual to the big four, which is a reflection that this year's competition is expected to be more open than usual.

The FA Cup, like the Premier League, has become virtually the exclusive property of the big four in the past two decades.

In the 21 years since Wimbledon's Crazy Gang upset Liverpool in the 1988 final, only three clubs - Tottenham, Everton and Portsmouth - have managed to stop one of the big four from lifting the trophy. In that period, United and Arsenal have had five wins apiece and Chelsea, the holders, and Liverpool have had four each.

No wonder, then, the big four dominate betting on this year's showpiece. Chelsea are 4.0 favourites, with United 5.0, Liverpool 6.0 and Arsenal 7.0. But Tottenham at 11.0 and Manchester City at 12.0 are given a bigger chance and so, too, are Aston Villa, who are available at 18.0, along with last year's beaten finalists Everton.

The top eight in the betting were kept apart in the third-round draw, with five handed home ties and six drawn against lower-league opposition.

Those eight will be hugely popular in All Up combinations, as there is a strong chance that all of them will go through. If they do, they will comprise a quarter of the teams left in the draw for the fourth round, which emphasises how difficult it will be for another team to stop one of them lifting the trophy.

The intriguing question is whether the big four can be overcome by one of the next four teams in the betting - Tottenham, Manchester City, Villa or Everton? The latter will do well to match last year's exploits, never mind bettering them, and one of the handicaps for the other pretenders to the crown is that they lack the squad depth of the big four.

That means the improvement shown by Tottenham, City and Villa might, in fact, work against them in the FA Cup. Given the choice, their managers would prioritise a top-four place in the league over FA Cup success, so they are likely to rest key players in the FA Cup and keep them fresh for league matches as long as they remain in contention for Champions League qualification.

City's new manager Roberto Mancini is even talking about a title challenge and, if that materialises, he is unlikely to worry too much about the FA Cup.

Villa have the thinnest squad among the top teams in the league and boss Martin O'Neill has taken them beyond the third round only once in three attempts, though they were unlucky to draw Manchester United on two occasions. On the plus side, City and Villa have shown a greater appetite for cup competitions by reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup, while Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp is one of the few who has broken the big-four monopoly, when he lifted the cup with Portsmouth in 2008.

The odds are still tilted heavily in favour of the big four, however, and it is only sensible to look for one of them to provide the winner again. Chelsea are worthy favourites as they are well equipped to challenge for silverware on several fronts, but United are the pick as they are the most reliable of the big four when it comes to making a concerted effort in the FA Cup.

In the past seven seasons United have reached the final three times and, although they have won only once, the four teams that knocked them out earlier in the competition all went on to reach the final (three of them lifted the trophy). In other words, five of the last six winners apart from United had to beat Sir Alex Ferguson's team before they could get their hands on the trophy.

It is difficult to make a case for any of the top eight in the betting being on the wrong end of a shock result, but there is the potential for surprises elsewhere in the draw.

Cash-strapped Portsmouth and managerless Bolton could be vulnerable even with home ties against lower-league opposition. Wolves, away to Tranmere, and Wigan, at home to Hull, are other Premier League strugglers that don't look too reliable at odds-on.

Preston North End, another club to part company with their manager this week, could also be knocked out by lower-league opponents - Colchester, who are going well in League One and are only 12 places below them in the league ladder.

For the best bets, look to a trio of teams from the upper reaches of the Championship. The top two, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, have winnable away ties, while Blackpool are attractive odds at home to Ipswich.

Giant killers

Premier League teams knocked out by lower-league teams in last year's third round: 2

Hot guns

Arsenal, in 2002 and 2003, are the only club in the past 25 years to retain the FA Cup: 1

Unlucky draw

Consecutive years in which Middlesbrough have been knocked out by the beaten finalists: 5

Shortlist: Newcastle, West Bromwich, Crystal Palace, Blackpool, Colchester, Sevilla, Getafe, Deportivo, Mallorca

Top 5 tips

1 Newcastle away win Look too good for Plymouth, who lost 3-1 in the away league fixture

2 West Brom away win The best away team in the Championship, winning six of eight when scoring

3 Blackpool home win Ten points better than Ipswich in the league standings and strong at home

4 Sevilla on handicap Have won all five on the road against teams outside the top six

5 Mallorca home win The only team in Spain apart from the top two with a perfect home record