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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 February, 2010, 12:00am

Aston Villa can strike the first real blow of the season against the established elite of English soccer by lifting the Carling Cup tomorrow, when they face hot-favourites Manchester United in the final at Wembley.

While commentators were quick to welcome a stronger threat to the big four of the Premier League, what that has boiled down to at the moment is Liverpool under-performing and being dragged back into the chasing pack, while Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal steam on ahead as usual.

That's hardly a revolution, and to some extent the hopes of watchers of the game were misplaced, because in terms of the league, English soccer has never been good at sharing. In the 1970s, Liverpool began their period of domination, winning the title in 10 out of 15 seasons, only to be superseded by Manchester United's harvesting of 11 titles in the 17 seasons of the Premier League.

Where there is an opportunity to claw back power from the big four is in the cup competitions, where success used to be shared more evenly, but has become more consolidated in recent years. It is more realistic for most clubs to chase cup glory and it is arguable that they would do the game in England better service rather than concentrating on European qualification.

Villa, having done little in the cups in Martin O'Neill's three seasons in charge, certainly appear to have made silverware more of a priority this season, as they also are in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Their progress in the cups is a reflection of their general upward curve under O'Neill.

One of the notable improvements this season is Villa's record against the top clubs. In a mini-league of the top seven clubs, including only the results between them, Villa would be third behind Chelsea and United, and they have the joint-fewest defeats in that category (two) despite having played the joint-highest number of games (10) against the other top-seven teams.

Villa's good results in top-level games include a 1-0 win at Old Trafford and a 1-1 home draw in their two league fixtures against United this season, and their only bad result against another top-seven side was the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal just after Christmas.

What is also notable about Villa's progress under O'Neill is their good away results, with this season's win at Old Trafford just one example of their highly effective use of solid teamwork and swift counter-attacking. This season they have lost the fewest away games in the Premier League (three out of 12) and overall under O'Neill they have become one of the go-to teams for punters looking for a solid away bet.

Good away teams usually do well in one-off finals played on neutral territory and, while United also are obviously a first-class away side, Villa are under-rated at the odds. The best bets are Villa on the handicap and under 2.5 goals, in a game that is likely to be tighter than the odds suggest.

The counter-attractions of the cup competitions mean that the English Premier League title race will become disjointed over the next fortnight, with United taking a leave of absence from league action this weekend and Chelsea doing the same next weekend, when they will continue their defence of the FA Cup with a home quarter-final against Stoke City.

Arsenal play on both weekends, which gives them a chance to close the gap on the top two and reignite their flickering title hopes. They have winnable games against teams from the bottom half of the table - away to Stoke tonight and home to Burnley next weekend - and it is possible for them to be just three points off top spot by the end of play next Saturday.

Winnable may be a fair description of tonight's visit to Stoke, but Arsenal know how difficult it is to turn opportunity into victory at the Britannia Stadium. They were knocked out 3-1 there in the FA Cup fourth round little more than a month ago and last season they lost their league visit 2-1.

Midweek, Stoke claimed another notable cup scalp with a 3-1 home win over Manchester City in their fifth-round replay and they are unbeaten in 11 games in all competitions since the turn of the year, with six wins and five draws.

Arsenal will need to be on their mettle again to cope with Stoke's aerial barrage, particularly from long throw-ins, but still they deserve to start as strong favourites to record a crucial win. One notable factor in tonight's game is that Stoke have yet to keep a clean sheet at home to a top-half team in six attempts, losing three and winning only one of those matches.

Despite outscoring Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium twice before, it is difficult to rely on being able to do that against the top teams and the greater likelihood is that Arsenal will be tough to beat and will probably win if they get on the score sheet. Their record from the 10 away league games in which they have scored this season is six wins, two draws and two defeats.

Arsenal rate as the best away chance on the Premier League programme, though perhaps their odds are a little on the short side.

History of victories

Villa are second only to Liverpool, on seven, for League Cup wins: 5

Shooting blanks

Consecutive games without a goal for Manchester City at Stamford Bridge: 7

Victory drought

Points gained for Sunderland in 13 league games since their last win: 6

Shortlist: Hoffenheim, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol Rovers, Norwich, Nancy, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Sevilla, Valencia

Top five bets

1 Birmingham City home win

Can score their sixth straight home win against teams outside the top six

2 Cardiff on handicap

Off-field troubles have not affected their strong away form

3 Norwich City away win

Have become the best team in League One under Paul Lambert

4 Bordeaux away win

Rising force are irresistible for a road win at Le Mans

5 Sevilla home win

Back on top form and look too powerful for Bilbao

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