FA Cup Tips: Manchester United an eye-catching price to lift the cup
Alex Keble previews the FA Cup ahead of its return this weekend, picking out Manchester United as the team to win the trophy this season...
The FA Cup quarter-final takes place this weekend some 115 days after the draw was made, so you can be forgiven if you can't even remember which teams are left in the competition. After all, back in March the FA Cup fifth round - completed midweek and sandwiched between Champions League games - was hardly a priority.
Three months on and starved of meaningful football, suddenly the competition feels incredibly important again. Fortunately, the quarter-final draw has thrown up some interesting games, and (for a variety of different reason) all eight of the clubs challenging would celebrate winning the FA Cup as a major achievement.
Here's a look at the outright market, with some tips for the upcoming quarter-final games included.
Manchester City - 8/11
Pep Guardiola's side are favourites and with good reason. They have won their first two league games back by an 8-0 aggregate score, clearly benefitting from the break and benefitting from the extra substitutions they can deploy from a very deep bench.
What's more, with nothing to play for in the Premier League they can remain fresh for these FA Cup games and will be particularly focused on the task at hand, starting with an easy tie against Newcastle United at St. James Park. Steve Bruce's team got off to a good start against the ten men of Sheffield United, but City should ease to victory: back City to win with a -2 goal handicap at 7/5.
City's methodical approach, refreshed attacking tactics, and clean bill of health - they look transformed with Aymeric Laporte back - make them clear favourites. They would appear unstoppable, if it wasn't for the fact the second favourites have already beaten them twice this season...
Manchester United - 7/1
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer excellent record against the 'Big Six' should make him an excellent cup manager. Man Utd are unbeaten against Man City, Leicester City, and Chelsea this season, suggesting their conservative counter-attacking football could be enough to see them lift the FA Cup for the first time in four years.
That tactical strategy should be even more effective during post-lockdown football, in which powerful dribbling and speed on the break have already proven to be invaluable assets against semi-fit players. Add to that the potential in the Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba partnership, which got off to a good start against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, and United are clearly a major force in this competition.
They certainly ought to beat Norwich City on Saturday given that Daniel Farke's side looked well off the pace against Southampton. Back United to beat Norwich with a -1 handicap at 8/5, and given their odds are favourable, it's worth a wager on them to lift the FA Cup at 7/1.
Chelsea - 8/1
There is an optimistic mood around Stamford Bridge at the moment, but the sluggishness of their 2-1 victory over a hapless Aston Villa last weekend suggests they might struggle to maintain form over the weeks ahead. Fighting on multiple fronts, and with a tough game against Leicester City in the quarter-final, it is hard to see them battle through three more rounds and lift the trophy.
However, prior to football's suspension Frank Lampard had begun to approach tough matches with a deeper defensive line, sitting off the likes of Liverpool (in a 2-0 win in the FA Cup) and Tottenham (in a 2-1 league win at Stamford Bridge). Chelsea are capable of grinding out results against top teams, and yet they have lost all three matches against the Manchester clubs so far this season, by an aggregate score of 8-1.
Plus they have to get through Leicester first, and Brendan Rodgers side could end Chelsea's run in the competition.
Leicester City - 8/1
A 1-1 draw with Watford was a quiet way to restart the season, but Leicester have the sort of tactical strategy that ought to flourish while fitness is an issue. Rodgers' team focuses on sudden tempo changes, moving from slow possession football to sharp vertical passes into James Maddison or Ben Chilwell.
Jamie Vardy is the kind of ruthless goalscorer and sharp mover who will build a head of steam in the coming weeks, and Chelsea's rustiness means they are certainly vulnerable to his movement. But even if Leicester win this weekend, priced at 13/8, they probably don't have enough to get past either (let alone both) Manchester clubs.
Rodgers has a strong first 11 but is low on quality on the bench, handing a major advantage to City or United should they be drawn in the next round.
Arsenal - 17/2
The defeat to Brighton might have been psychologically damaging, but once again there were signs of Mikel Arteta's revolution beginning to take shape. The complexity of their movements when on the ball and sophistication of their predetermined passing moves gives Arsenal the same look of Man City in Guardiola's first year: the ideas are taking hold, but they are undermined by emotionally volatile players with no future at the club.
For that reason, they might impress enough in short bursts to beat a lacklustre Sheffield United this weekend (Arsenal should have been 3-0 up at half-time against Brighton), but there are far too many mistakes in their back line to lift the FA Cup. Arteta's ambitions are undermined by fearful defending, passiveness in the transition, and emotional scarring that seems to leave the Gunners perpetually on the verge of collapse.
Chelsea, Man City, and Man Utd would expect to beat them over 90 minutes, while it certainly isn't out of the question that Sheffield United will keep the score at 0-0 for the first hour before taking advantage of that psychological weakness. Back Chris Wilder's side to win at 15/8.
Sheff Utd, Norwich, & Newcastle
Sheffield United could make it to the next stage, but none of these three stands a chance of winning the FA Cup. The use of extra substitutions, coupled with the packed schedule, means clubs with greater resources hold a major advantage, and that's before factoring in the historical superiority of the 'Big Six'.
Only one of the last 11 FA Cups has been won by anyone outside the elite, and Wigan only had to beat one of the big boys during their shock win in 2013. Each of Sheffield United (16/1), Norwich (40/1), and Newcastle (25/1) would have to beat three of the top clubs to match what only Wigan and Portsmouth have done in the 21st century.