Giants beware: fixture build-up could mean potential FA Cup upsets for Premier League’s big dogs
Exhausted Premier League clubs could potentially lose to lower-tier teams in the third round of the competition
The debilitating effects of English football’s festive programme have been a major talking point again in the past couple of weeks – and perhaps more than usual with new voices such as Juergen Klopp joining the debate – and there might be a knock-on impact in this weekend’s FA Cup third round.
“Forty-eight hours [between matches] is an interesting idea but less than 48 hours I cannot believe,” Klopp said in response to the fixture list that asked his Liverpool side to play a late game at home to Manchester City last Saturday and visit Sunderland less than 48 hours later. Liverpool beat City but then dropped two points in a 2-2 at Sunderland.
Southampton manager Claude Puel was even more unhappy after his club was handed the tough schedule of all over the festive season, with games on Wednesday, Saturday and Monday. The Saints lost all three matches and it looked significant that they collapsed in the late stages of Monday’s 3-0 loss at Everton, having got to the 73rd minute before conceding.
The fixture build-up could be a factor again this weekend and might lead to some upsets for the Premier League teams if they do not get their calculations right. The balance lies between giving some players a rest, which many managers will surely do, and putting out a strong enough team to get through to the fourth round.
One of the teams most at risk appears to be Southampton, who face a tricky tie away to Championship side Norwich. Puel looks likely to save some of his better players for the Premier League and, with doubts over his line-up, Southampton are shaky favourites.
Norwich are ninth in the Championship, five points below the play-offs, and they are coming off a fine 3-0 home victory on Monday against Derby, one of the form teams of the division since Steve McClaren took charge.
For the most part, Norwich have struggled against the better teams in the Championship, even at home, but the result against Derby was a more positive sign. At the odds they are the handicap pick against Southampton, who have not been a high-scoring away team under Puel.
The odds say Southampton are the most vulnerable Premier League team against lower-league opposition and next on that list are Crystal Palace, away to Bolton of League One. This tie takes new Palace boss Sam Allardyce back to the club where he made his name both as a player and a manager and he might have an uncomfortable afternoon.
Allardyce has hardly hit the ground running at Palace, with a draw against out-of-form Watford followed by defeats away to Arsenal and, most damagingly, at home to Swansea on Tuesday. He has yet to keep a clean sheet, which he set as an early aim, and Bolton are good enough to take advantage of any sloppiness.
Currently second in League One, Bolton have won their last 10 home games in all competitions and that sequence includes a 3-2 victory over League One leaders Sheffield United in the second round of the FA Cup.
Palace were beaten finalists last year under Alan Pardew and are certainly good enough to go on a cup run again with some luck, but this is a tricky opening tie and Bolton are the handicap pick.
Most of the Premier League teams are short odds when faced with lower-league opposition, but there is some value in backing West Brom at home to Derby.
Tony Pulis always takes the FA Cup seriously and, with his West Brom side safely in eighth place after an impressive first half of the season, he can have a good crack at the competition this year.
At their best Derby would be dangerous, but several of the Championship promotion hopefuls are likely to keep some of their best players fresh for the league and their teamsheets will need close scrutiny, just as they do with the Premier League sides.
Some of the best bets might lie in the less eyecatching ties, such as Accrington v Luton. These two sides come from opposite ends of League Two and sixth-placed Luton rate a good chance.
Another tie involving clubs from the same division is Cardiff v Fulham and the visitors have the edge on the handicap.
Bristol City from the Championship look a good banker at home to Fleetwood from the division below, while in-form Leeds should be reliable for the win at Cambridge on Monday night.
If there is going to be a big upset, perhaps it will come in Watford v Burton. The hosts are in a form trough, although Burton might not be good enough to take advantage.
Fulham, Bolton, Roma, Fiorentina.
Norwich on handicap
Southampton could be ripe for an upset
Luton away win
Decent value in minor FA Cup tie
West Brom home win
Best value of the Premier League teams
Atalanta on handicap
Undefeated by bottom-half teams since September
Leeds away win
Bank on Garry Monk’s in-form side
Non-league clubs in the FA Cup third round