Chelsea, with no Cup distractions, hard to ignore at home
League leaders fancied at home, while Arsenal and City face knockout challenges
You have to be in it to win it, as the old saying goes, but there is a sense this could be the year that being out of the FA Cup will be an advantage in the English Premier League.
While Arsenal and Manchester City have been preoccupied with cup competitions, Chelsea and Liverpool have moved ahead in the title race after being knocked out of the FA Cup. Chelsea's lead at the top might stretch further after tonight's league game at home to Tottenham, with Arsenal and City in FA Cup action and Liverpool having no fixture at all.
More significant than Chelsea's non-involvement in the FA Cup is that they are the only club to have reached the normal threshold achieved by champions at this stage of the season. All of the last 10 Premier League title winners went into the final 10 games of the season with at least 60 points on the board; Chelsea have 63 points, while Liverpool and Arsenal have fallen short on 59 points - although City have 57 points from 26 games and should pass the 60-point mark before they go into their final 10 games.
There is historically no great evidence that an early exit from the FA Cup is an influential factor in the title race, and any advantage Chelsea do gain by not being in that competition could be negated in any case by the fact that they might soon be the only English club left in the Champions League.
Chelsea are in a strong position, however, and they go into the Tottenham game on a 13-match unbeaten Premier League run that has yielded 33 points from a possible 39. Their home record is outstand ing and they have won six out of six at Stamford Bridge against teams for the leading group of nine.
Notably, they have won all three home games against teams from the big six - 2-1 against both Liverpool and Manchester City and 3-1 against Manchester United. So far, that has even bettered their home record in Jose Mourinho's first season, in his first spell at Stamford Bridge, against what was then the big four, when they had six wins and three draws out of nine.
One significant difference is that in the old days Mourinho could rely on a mean defence, which conceded in only one of those nine big games, whereas this season Chelsea have conceded in every home match against a big-six team.
While it is difficult to oppose Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, their tendency to concede raises some doubt and suggests over 2.5 goals is the best bet.
It is notable that half of the eight teams left in the FA Cup are what might be termed "cup sides": League Cup winners Manchester City vie with Chelsea as the best of the big teams in cup competitions; holders Wigan are refusing to give up the trophy without a fight; former Wigan boss Roberto Martinez has taken his magic to Everton; and Sunderland are still there after their excellent League Cup run.
That suggests Arsenal and Manchester City will not have an easy ride at home to Everton and Wigan respectively, although it is difficult to argue convincingly against them. Everton drew 1-1 at the Emirates in December, but their form has dipped, especially on the road (no win in five, with three defeats).
The best bet in the FA Cup may be Sheffield United, a division below Charlton, but with home advantage and much improved under Nigel Clough.
In the other Premier League games, Crystal Palace are interesting at home to Southampton, but it would be a leap of faith to back them. Even under Tony Pulis, they have lost all six games against top-nine teams.
Manchester United, for all their problems, remain highly efficient against bottom-half teams (they have the best away record in that category, with seven wins out of nine) and should beat West Brom.
Bournemouth, Ipswich, Leyton Orient, Schalke.