Path to Wembley clear for Premier teams in FA Cup
With the Manchester clubs dumped out of the FA Cup by Liverpool, the path to the final is clearing for the other members of the Premier League big six as they go into the fifth round this weekend.
Two of them - Chelsea and Liverpool - are at home to Championship teams and another, Tottenham, are just as short odds for their trip to League One promotion contenders Stevenage. In fact, only one of the eight ties is an all-Premier League affair, which will raise hopes of a trip to Wembley for most of the top-flight clubs as well as the scent of an upset for their lower-league opponents.
The only all-Premier League match is Sunderland v Arsenal - a repeat of the league match from just seven days ago but with one important difference. This time there will be no Thierry Henry, who has returned to the New York Red Bulls since scoring the late winner in Arsenal's 2-1 victory over Sunderland last weekend.
Henry made a difference for Arsenal during his short-term return on loan, scoring three goals in six appearances. Two of them were crucial winners, the first crowning his dream comeback as he gave Arsenal a 1-0 win over Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup.
Even without Henry, who did not come on until the 66th minute, Arsenal were the better side for much of last weekend's game, although the fact remains that they wouldn't have won without the Frenchman's goal.
Perhaps it is significant that it was Henry who provided the vital cutting edge in two of his appearances because Arsenal, even with Robin van Persie fit and firing in plenty of goals, have struggled to string wins together. Leaving aside the two games where Henry scored the winner, Arsenal have won only four of their last 10 in all competitions.
Those wins were against teams in the bottom six of the Premier League and before last week's victory over Sunderland you had to go back three months to the 2-1 win at Norwich to find the last time Arsenal had beaten a top-half team.
Manager Arsene Wenger still has a wealth of talent in his team and their control of possession (they had the ball for almost 70 per cent of last week's match at the Stadium of Light) means they should always be favourites against a team like Sunderland, but still they remain one of the riskier bets among the big six.
One negative is their shaky defence, which was picked apart with ease by Milan on Wednesday night and has kept only two clean sheets in their last 10 games against Premier League opposition. It's no wonder they are struggling to win games.
A win for Sunderland would be more of a surprise now than it would have been last weekend, because in the game they were second-best for the most part. Perhaps their limitations were exposed, as they have won six and drawn one of their seven games under Martin O'Neill against teams outside the big six, but have won one (1-0 at home to Manchester City) and lost three against the big six.
A draw might be the best pick in the result market, but there could be a better bet with over 2.5 goals. Last week's 2-1 result means Arsenal have had 10 out of 13 over 2.5 goals in their away matches in the Premier League, which is another consequence of poor defending. Two of the games with under 2.5 goals came when Arsenal had a clean sheet (something they have managed only three times on the road).
Evidence that the FA Cup is a competition for specialists comes in the fact that, outside the big six, five of the teams left in the competition also made it to the last 16 a year ago. Two of them meet in the early kick-off tomorrow when Crawley host Stoke.
Crawley, who are in League Two but are well funded and have several players capable of playing two divisions higher, gave Manchester United a hard time at Old Trafford last season before losing 1-0.
Stoke would be easily their biggest scalp, but it's a big ask because the Premier League side are cup specialists and were the beaten finalists last year.
The difficulty for Stoke is that they are coming off Thursday's Europa League tie at home to Valencia. Early in the season Stoke's form suffered because of that factor - in all matches this season with a gap of three or fewer days since their previous game, their record is won four, drawn two and lost six.
That might give pause for thought to short-odds backers this weekend, although it should also be noted that Stoke have coped better with a quick turnaround more recently, winning three of their last four against domestic opponents (the only exception being a defeat at Manchester United).
The scheduling has helped Crawley in their quest for an upset, but Stoke are the logical choice and are not bad odds on form.
The best bets might be in the Millwall v Bolton match. Bolton have a good cup manager in Owen Coyle, who previously did well with Burnley, and rate a solid bet on the handicap against a team that has a low win rate at home (just two in their last nine against opponents from the Championship).
The glimmer of hope for Millwall is that Bolton leak goals on the road, which makes over 2.5 goals a good bet, even though it is hard to see Bolton losing.
Defeats out of three for Arsenal on the road after Champions League ties
TOP 5 BETS
1 Bolton on handicap
Cup specialists will be hard to beat
2 Leeds home win
Good chance to lift the gloom
3 Bournemouth on handicap
Can continue solid away record against bottom club
4 Colchester on handicap
Unbeaten in seven away to teams below them
5 Atalanta on handicap
Underrated against poor opponents
Bolton, Leeds, Bournemouth, Colchester, Genoa, Atalanta, Schalke.