22:53 GMT28 May 2020
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    The third round of the FA Cup- the oldest football Cup competition in the world- took place last weekend. The biggest shock was the exit of Arsenal, the most successful team in the history of the competition- and the winners in three of the last four seasons- at the hands of Championship side Nottingham Forest.

    But apart from that only one other Premiership side- Stoke City, lost to lower league opposition. While we’re told ‘anything can happen’ in the Cup, the reality is that the competition in recent decades has tended to be dominated by a handful of elite clubs. Since 1989, four teams: Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, have won the Cup in 24 years out of 29. And there’s only been four finals (1991, 2011 and 2013), which haven’t featured at least one of the ‘Big Four’. Compare that to the period 1965-79 when there were thirteen different winners- including two- Sunderland (1973) and Southampton (1976), from outside the top flight.

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    The ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the general improvement in pitches have made genuine cup shocks much rarer. So what can we do to try and even things out a bit more? One reform could be to automatically give home advantage to all teams from a lower division. Victories for the underdogs are more likely if they play at home- as we saw from the exploits of Notts Forest and Coventry at the weekend.

    Another change could be to increase the Cup’s prize money to incentivize teams from the lower half of the Premiership, and chasing promotion from the Championship, to take it more seriously. The big money these days is in staying in, or getting promoted, to the Premier League and that means that teams who are in danger of getting relegated, or in with a realistic chance of promotion are unlikely to want a long Cup run. But if prize money was hiked significantly, this could lead to a rethink. It would also help restore the prestige of the competition if the final reverted to its traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon kick-off.

    Going back to this year’s tournament, if you’re looking for a couple of outsiders who might defy the odds,  then Preston, at 80-1, and Sheffield Wednesday at 100-1, make some appeal. The former thrashed Wycombe Wanderers 5-1 away in the Third Round and are in cracking form in the Championship. It’s also worth remembering that last year, they came close to knocking out the eventual winners Arsenal. Admittedly they’ve got a tricky away tie to Sheffield United to negotiate in Round Four but that is factored into their current price. Sheffield Wednesday’s players will be out to please new boss Jo Lukuhay in their 3rd round replay with League Two Carlisle, and if they get past that, the Owls have another winnable home tie against either Stevenage or Reading to look forward to in Round Four.

    TENNIS: A wide open Australian Open

    To Melbourne next, where the first tennis Grand Slam of the year- the Australian Open — starts on 15th January.  The evergreen Roger Federer is the 2-1 favourite to retain his Men’s Title and with Andy Murray out injured, and injury concerns over Nadal and Djokovic too, it’s not hard to see why. The women’s tournament appears wide open, with Serena Williams still missing, and injury worries over Garbine Muguruza, who in any case has yet to get past the last eight in the tournament. World number one Simona Halep will be looking to win her first Grand Slam, but she’s been knocked out in the first round the last two years.  2016 winner Angelique Kerber will fancy her chances of a good run, while Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, who warmed up by winning the Brisbane International title,  CoCo Vanderwegh (beaten in the semis in 2017) and Johanna Konta (beaten in the quarters in 2017), are others who could do well.

    RACING: Whisper it, but this horse could be the Gold Cup value

    This week 38 entries for the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup- the ‘blue riband’ of British jump racing, were revealed. The each-way value for the 16th March event could be Whisper, currently available at around 25-1 with some bookmakers. Nicky Henderson’s charge disappointed in the King George at Christmas, but Kempton is not his track.  Cheltenham though most definitely is. His record over fences there is 1,1,2 and he also won over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014.

    The Road to Russia: Belgium. Current odds: 12-1.

    With just five months to go before the start of the World Cup, here’s the first of our regular profiles on the leading contenders.

    We start with Belgium, many people’s dark horses for the tournament.

    The Red Devils team breezed through qualifying- scoring 43 goals- the joint highest total ever scored (along with Germany) in a European qualifying group.

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    The negative, from a statistical perspective are that they have never won a World Cup, nor indeed reached a World Cup final-and since 1958 there have only been four first-time winners.

    It’s also worth pointing out they were well-fancied in the 2014 World Cup too, but ultimately disappointed.

    That said, there’s solid reasons for believing they’ll do better this time. For a start, they now have a manager, Roberto Martinez, whose attacking tactics are more in tune with the squad’s strengths. Martinez is also a good manager in knock-out competitions (as the World Cup is after the group stage). He won the FA Cup in 2013 with un-fancied Wigan, and also reached the semi-finals in 2016 with Everton.

    There’s also the precedent of well-fancied teams doing better next time round. Croatia were touted in the 1996 Euros, but only came to bloom in the World Cup two years later when they reached the semis.  

    Belgium have been drawn in Group G along with England, Tunisia and Panama and should have few problems in making it through. They have a very talented squad and if key players like Kevin De Bruyne, the best player in the Premier League this season, stay fit they are good enough to lift the Trophy on 15th July.

    The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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