Suarez factor still hard to pin down for Liverpool
Manchester United are having to do it the hard way in the FA Cup, although the good news is that the path to the final is likely to be much clearer if they manage to come through their fourth-round tie against Liverpool.
Having won away at Manchester City in a third-round thriller, United are faced with another trip to a big-six team in their quest for a first FA Cup triumph in eight years. Also in the cauldron is the simmering tension of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, which is bound to intensify the usual red-hot atmosphere in this fixture.
Liverpool shouldn't need any more motivation but they got it anyway with Kenny Dalglish's stinging criticism after their 3-1 defeat at Bolton last weekend. The defence's abject performance was out of character for a team who have been well organised under Dalglish - a solidity reflected in their record of just one defeat in 21 home matches against top-flight opposition since his appointment - and they responded well by securing their place in the League Cup final with Wednesday's 2-2 draw at home to Manchester City.
This season's Liverpool-United league meeting at Anfield ended 1-1 and it is fair to say Dalglish's team looked the most likely winners with a strong second-half display. Liverpool had more possession, more shots and more corners than United but, as so often this season, they were unable to translate those stats into three points after being pegged back by a late goal from Javier Hernandez. That made it three wins and a draw for Liverpool in their last four home games against United, which marks a complete turnaround from United's previous superiority in this fixture.
With Dalglish cementing their solidity at home, Liverpool look a decent bet on the handicap on their overall form but the question mark hanging over them is how much they are missing Suarez during his eight-match ban. In the first game without him, Liverpool won 3-1 at home to Newcastle but since then they have scored only one goal and managed just one point in three Premier League matches, although they did win 1-0 at Manchester City in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final and they looked sharper in Wednesday's return match.
Suarez isn't yet a prolific scorer for Liverpool, making it hard to pin down how much the recent goal drought owes to his absence, but the visual evidence of his all-round performances suggests he brings something to Liverpool that is otherwise lacking. On the little evidence available, it seems the Suarez affair has had a negative impact on Liverpool.
With Suarez absent and Wayne Rooney almost certain to play for United, this is a mirror image of how the respective strike forces looked in October. On that occasion Suarez played but Rooney was left out of the United line-up, reportedly because he was troubled by his three-match ban after being sent off for England against Montenegro.
The ban was later reduced and Rooney returned to top form, but there are doubts about how influential he will be today. Since grabbing the winner in his first game for United at Anfield, he has not scored in seven trips.
United, however, are not as reliant on Rooney as Liverpool appear to be on Suarez and on current form the visitors may just have the edge. Another draw would be no surprise but United on the handicap is a reasonable bet.
The other big-six teams must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of another main contender biting the dust at this early stage of the competition, although Chelsea face a few problems of their own with today's visit to QPR.
Just as at Anfield, the atmosphere is likely to be heated after the furore surrounding the league meeting between the clubs in October, when Chelsea had two players sent off and John Terry was accused of making racist comments to QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.
QPR's 1-0 victory was hard to take at face value in the circumstances, but Chelsea old boy Mark Hughes is now in charge at QPR and will be keen to prove he has the managerial skill to engineer a big win over one of the elite teams. Chelsea are likely winners but look too short.
One of the more attractive bets in the other ties is Birmingham on the handicap away to Sheffield United. Chris Hughton, having turned Newcastle around with quiet efficiency, is doing a similarly impressive job with Birmingham, without much help from the cheque book.
Birmingham are unbeaten in eight matches and have used their games in hand to good effect in the Championship, climbing rapidly into the play-off places. They knocked out Wolves of the Premier League in the third round and today's trip is easier, even though United are flying high in League One.
Wednesday, the other Sheffield club, are also going well in League One but are up against similarly tough opposition from the Championship in free-scoring Blackpool. The hosts have the fourth-best home record in the Championship and are unbeaten in their last six games at home.
The only all-Championship tie is Millwall v Southampton and the visitors have a clear edge. Southampton's form has become a little up and down but struggling Millwall have yet to beat a top-half team, home or away, and have scored only one goal in seven matches against the top six.
Hull are attractive odds against Crawley, who are racing up the league but are still two divisions lower than the hosts, and fast-rising Sunderland can land another win in their north-east derby at home to Middlesbrough.
Consecutive home games in which Arsenal have scored one or none
FA Cup ties since Chelsea lost in 90 minutes' play
Manchester United, Blackpool, Stoke, Hull, Southampton, Birmingham, Sunderland, Bilbao, Betis, Atalanta, Hamburg
TOP 5 BETS
1 Bilbao on handicap
Beaten only by Real Madrid in last 12 domestic games
2 Betis home win
Should be too strong for leaky Granada
3 Atalanta on handicap
Much better than Cesena once points deduction is ignored
4 Hamburg on handicap
One defeat in 12 against teams outside the top five
5 Schalke away win
Can build on last week's impressive win