You Bet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am

There could be no clearer sign that the FA Cup has lost much of its old appeal than the words uttered this week by Harry Redknapp: 'We've a game at Man United that really is so secondary to me now. We're in a relegation battle and I can't risk Jamie O'Hara, Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Dawson at Old Trafford.'

Redknapp's comments must be dispiriting for cup purists, who would have been viewing tonight's United v Tottenham clash as one of the ties of the fourth round, between two teams with managers who have tasted cup success and are renowned for their commitment to entertaining football.

And it is especially sobering that the words should come from Redknapp, last year's FA Cup-winning manager with Portsmouth. A quarter-final smash-and-grab victory at Old Trafford was part of Portsmouth's cup run, so clearly it is fear of Tottenham losing their Premier League status that is guiding Redknapp's thoughts.

Football punters, too, are affected by the modern downgrading of the FA Cup in the list of priorities, with clubs giving the utmost precedence to securing a place in the Premier League, whether by avoiding relegation or being promoted. There are important league clashes coming up in midweek in the Premier League and the Championship, which could prompt managers to rest some of their key players this weekend. Wolves v Middlesbrough is one of the cup games that may prove most difficult for punters to assess, given the likelihood of significant team changes.

With the spectre of relegation looming large after taking only four points from the last 30, Boro may be more focused on Wednesday's league visit to Chelsea. Championship leaders Wolves, meanwhile, travel to second-placed Reading on Tuesday night and will be more nervous about that clash now that they are on a winless run of four in the league.

Redknapp signalled his intentions well in advance of today's game, but punters will have to make some late assessments of how the cup lineups affect the chances of other teams.

With the relegation dogfight closer than ever in the Premier League, there is every likelihood that Hull, West Ham, Fulham, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Blackburn and West Brom will also be looking to rest players today. And perhaps that raises the possibility of more giant-killing acts.

Two Premier League clubs - Manchester City at home to Nottingham Forest and Stoke away to Hartlepool - were knocked out by lower-league clubs in the third round, and certainly Stoke's defeat owed much to the wholesale changes from their usual line-up.

In fact, only four Premier League clubs out of 14 won by a clear margin - two goals or more - against lower-league opposition in the third round, and two of those that drew at home before winning the away replay may have more difficulty again tonight.

West Brom, held 1-1 at home by Peterborough before winning the replay 2-0, have another home tie against Burnley, who came so close to knocking out Tottenham in their midweek Carling Cup semi-final.

Burnley must lift themselves after that shattering disappointment, but their Carling Cup exploits - they knocked out Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham - will give them great hope.

Portsmouth, who specialised in beating Championship clubs en route to FA Cup success last season, needed two attempts to get the better of Bristol City in round three and now face in-form Swansea.

The Swans, who are unbeaten in 11 games in all competitions and have lost only four out of 15 on the road this season, could hold their own against Portsmouth, who have won only two of their nine home games under Tony Adams.

The Premier League team that stands out as being slightly overpriced is West Ham, who will try to avoid Stoke's fate at Hartlepool. The Hammers are a better team than Stoke and it is dangerous to rely on a team like Hartlepool to raise their game for a second time.

Hartlepool have a good home record in League One, but they are playing a team 48 places above them in the league structure and their leaky defence (only two teams in League One have conceded more goals at home) is a negative.

The best league bets this weekend are in Italy's Serie A, where nearly all the home sides hold good form chances. The top pick is Juventus, who have won 11 of their 14 home games in all competitions and face poor travellers Fiorentina, who have lost six out of seven away to teams outside the bottom six.

Palermo also rate well at home to Udinese, who are winless in 12 domestic games, while Napoli are good value to halt Roma's resurgence. Roma have won seven of their last nine league games, but Napoli's home form is excellent too (12 wins out of 13, with one draw, in all competitions). Arguably Napoli should be favourites for this match and they are the handicap pick.

No place like home

Home games against Spurs without defeat for Man Utd since the advent of the Premier League, including 15 wins: 18

Happy hunting ground

Visits to Sunderland without defeat for Blackburn, including a cup win and a league draw this season: 6


Southend, Walsall, Juventus, Napoli, Palermo, Valladolid.

Best bets

$200 Walsall (HW, Sat), Juventus (HW, Sat), Napoli (handicap, Sun), Palermo (HW, Sun). Last week: five winning bets out of six.

Form fact

Middlesbrough have reached at least the quarter-finals in the past three seasons, and the last four teams to knock them out all went on to reach the final.


FA Cup fourth round


Chelsea v Ipswich, Doncaster v Aston Villa, Hartlepool v West Ham, Hull v Millwall, Kettering v Fulham, Manchester United v Tottenham, Portsmouth v Swansea, Sheffield United v Charlton, Sunderland v Blackburn, Torquay v Coventry, Watford v Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion v Burnley, Wolverhampton v Middlesbrough.


Cardiff v Arsenal, Liverpool v Everton.