Arsenal in greatest peril of an early exit in FA Cup
Gunners have toughest task of big-six sides in third round with an away game against Swansea
Early January means it's time for one of the great traditions of the English soccer season, the FA Cup third round, and it's highly probable that May will bring the now traditional conclusion to the competition with one of the big six lifting the trophy at Wembley.
That has been the outcome in 22 of the past 24 seasons and it's no surprise that the big six head the overall betting, ranging from Manchester City at 4.8 favourites to Tottenham at odds of 11-1. On form alone Manchester United would be favourites, but their odds are slightly longer than City's because they have a tricky draw away to West Ham while City have a relatively easy task at home to Championship side Watford.
According to the odds and form, Arsenal are the big-six side in greatest peril of an early exit when they visit Swansea tomorrow.
It is barely a month since Swansea won 2-0 at the Emirates in the Premier League and it is also worth noting that Arsenal were the only big-six side knocked out last season by a team from outside that group, when they lost at Sunderland in the fifth round.
As for the rest of the big six last season, United knocked out City and then Liverpool beat United before Chelsea defeated Tottenham in the semi-final and Liverpool in the final to emerge with the trophy for the fourth time in six years.
The biggest threat to the big six is seen as Everton, who are priced at 12-1. They have one of the best draws, away to Cheltenham of League Two on Monday night, and their recent cup record is good - losing finalists against Chelsea in 2009 and the only team from outside the big six to reach the semi-finals last season.
At this stage, given their progressive form and an easy-looking home match against Coventry, Tottenham look the overall pick at the odds.
Surprise teams from the Championship might be Hull, Middlesbrough and Leicester, who are all flying high and have highly winnable ties in the third round. Leicester in particular have the make-up of a good cup side and they were the only team from outside the Premier League to reach the last eight last season.
The temptation for punters betting on this weekend's ties is to go looking for a big upset at big odds but, while there will be surprises, it is always difficult to predict where they will come.
Around a third of the Premier League teams knocked out by lower-league opposition are strugglers (in the bottom six or seven) with away ties, which suggests Sunderland (at Bolton), Newcastle (at Brighton) and Reading (at Crawley) are the most vulnerable this weekend.
Some punters will also eye Aston Villa at home to Ipswich, but it is worth remembering that Villa's best form this season has come in their good run to the Capital One Cup semi-finals.
On the other hand, the first leg of the semi-final is on Tuesday and manager Paul Lambert might prioritise that shorter route to a Wembley final along with Premier League survival.
The team news from Villa Park will be informative, as it will with several other Premier League teams. The possibility of weakened teams is one of the pitfalls of betting on the FA Cup.
One group that usually does well is the high-fliers from the Championship, especially when paired against teams from lower down the league ladder. Three that stand out this weekend are Leeds (home to Birmingham), Millwall (home to Preston) and possibly Derby (home to Tranmere).
On the handicap, the best options are Newcastle (away at Brighton), Burnley (at Barnsley) and Sunderland (at Bolton).
In the big ties, there are reasonable handicap chances for Swansea at home to Arsenal and West Ham at home to Manchester United. As well as their win at the Emirates, Swansea have drawn at home against United, Chelsea and Liverpool and have lost only two of their last 14 games in all competitions.
West Ham lost only 1-0 at United in late November, despite conceding after just 31 seconds, and they have a good scoring record at home. They could make United sweat, especially if Alex Ferguson leaves out one or two of his star players.
In the more unfashionable ties, the two Sheffield clubs are worth considering. Wednesday host MK Dons and United look one of the better away bets at Oxford.
Six of the best bankers are Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Leicester, Hull, Liverpool and Everton.
1 Millwall home win The pick of the bets in the FA Cup
2 Doncaster home win Visitors Colchester are on a losing run of seven
3 Levante home win Only dropped home points have been against the top three
4 Sevilla home win Should be good enough to beat low-scoring Osasuna
5 Napoli home win Worth the risk in the big match in Serie A
Leeds, Millwall, Derby, Sheffield United, Newcastle, Burnley, Sunderland, Doncaster, Levante, Sevilla, Napoli.
English FA Cup, third round (11pm unless otherwise stated): Brighton and Hove Albion v Newcastle United (8.30pm); Queens Park Rangers v West Bromwich Albion; Peterborough v Norwich City; Oxford United v Sheffield United; Middlesbrough v Hastings United; Charlton Athletic v Huddersfield; Barnsley v Burnley; Hull City v Leyton Orient; Southampton v Chelsea; Aldershot Town v Rotherham; Crawley Town v Reading; Manchester City v Watford; Nottingham Forest v Oldham; Derby County v Tranmere; Sheffield Wednesday v MK Dons; Crystal Palace v Stoke City; Luton Town v Wolverhampton Wanderers; Wigan Athletic v Bournemouth; Tottenham Hotspur v Coventry City; Millwall v Preston North End; Macclesfield v Cardiff City; Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland; Fulham v Blackpool; Leicester City v Burton Albion; Leeds United v Birmingham City; Aston Villa v Ipswich Town; Southend v Brentford; Blackburn Rovers v Bristol City; West Ham United v Manchester United (1.15am Sun).
Swansea City v Arsenal (9.30pm); Mansfield v Liverpool (12am Mon).
Cheltenham v Everton (3.45am Tue).