Arsenal’s FA Cup pedigree makes them hard for punters to ignore
Defending champions are unbeaten in 12 ties since February 2013, but Premier League clubs have been knocked out by lower tier opponents
Success in any cup competition requires some element of luck, and the FA Cup is no different. Last year’s winners, Arsenal, drew a home tie and/or opponents from a lower league or the bottom end of the Premier League in five rounds out of six, and made the most of that good fortune to lift the trophy for the second year running.
Arsenal, to be fair, rose to the occasion when handed a difficult draw away to Manchester United in the quarter-finals, winning 2-1, and they are in a good position for their bid to become the first club in 130 years – and only the third in history – to win the FA Cup three years in a row.
Clearly Arsene Wenger’s side have an excellent cup pedigree, having gone unbeaten in 12 ties (nine wins and three draws after 90 minutes) since a fifth-round defeat against Blackburn in February 2013, and they start with another home match against Premier League strugglers.
Last year it was Hull, then 15th in the table but destined to be relegated, and this time it is Sunderland, who are second-bottom and were beaten 3-1 at the Emirates on their league visit a month ago. Arsenal, meanwhile, are stronger – top of the table, having been sixth at this stage of last season.
Big rivals Tottenham (with a 1-1 draw in the league in early November) are the only team to have taken something from the Emirates in Arsenal’s last nine home games, which have featured opponents of the calibre of Bayern Munich and the two Manchester clubs.
Arsenal on the handicap, or a punt on high on the first-half HiLo, look the best bets, but it is not an easy match to find an edge.
Nor is it easy to spot where the first shocks might occur. In last season’s competition, five Premier League teams were knocked out by lower-league opponents and the biggest upsets came in the fourth round when Chelsea and Manchester City suffered home defeats against Bradford and Middlesbrough respectively.
Such results are near impossible to predict, but one group to treat with caution are the Premier League strugglers.
There is the obvious point that they are low on form and confidence, but also they are prime candidates to rest some of their most important players in order to prioritise survival in the top flight.
There is a full Premier League programme in midweek and most managers will leave out some first-teamers, but the squads of the big clubs are better equipped to cope than the strugglers. Last season at this stage QPR, then 16th and destined to be relegated, were beaten 3-0 at home by Sheffield United of League One.
Newcastle certainly look vulnerable away to Watford, who could have a decent shot at the cup having put themselves in a pretty secure position in the Premier League. Three of the other strugglers with away ties are Bournemouth against Birmingham (eighth in the Championship), Swansea against Oxford (going well in third place in League Two) and Aston Villa against Wycombe (also near the top of League Two).
Watford are one of the top picks, unless Quique Sanchez Flores signals with his team selection that he is not interested in the cup, and there are other decent bets in the less glamorous ties.
Blackburn, quarter-finalists last year, look banker material away to League Two strugglers Newport, as do Stoke of the Premier League away to Doncaster.
The good home bets against lower-league opponents are Brentford, Ipswich, West Brom, West Ham and Cardiff – as long as they put out strong enough teams.
An interesting rivalry this week is Tottenham v Leicester, who clash at White Hart Lane tomorrow in the FA Cup and again three days later in the Premier League. The second match seems more important, with both sides hardly able to afford losing more ground to leaders Arsenal.
The Gunners, who visit Liverpool on Wednesday, are one of the best bets in the Premier League on the handicap at least. The hosts are in an even deeper injury crisis now, with the loss of Philippe Coutinho the biggest blow, and Arsenal are performing much better in big matches this season – a key reason for their stronger title challenge.
The other midweek bet worth considering is Crystal Palace on the handicap for their visit to rock-bottom Aston Villa. Alan Pardew’s visitors have won nine and lost only two out of 14 against teams below them in the table, while Villa remain winless in the league since the opening day of the season.