11:51 GMT25 January 2021
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    The oldest football knockout competition in the world, first played in the 1871-2 season, reaches its traditionally very exciting third round stage this weekend, with the teams from the top two divisions in English football entering the fray. Which sides are likely to go well?

    It’s the FA Cup, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s not just that all the third round matches will be played ‘behind closed doors‘, due to the seemingly never-ending Coronavirus restrictions, but that later rounds are likely to be crowd-free too. On top of that this year there will no replays. 64 teams remain in the competition, but the FA Cup - at least the modern FA Cup, is nowhere near as open as it is commonly portrayed. Consider this: between 1964-73 ten different clubs won the Cup. Between 1973 and 1982 no fewer than five teams from outside the top flight reached the final (and three of them, Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham, won it). But in recent decades the competition has been dominated by a select few from the upper echelons of the Premier League. In the last 25 years there have been just seven different winners, and five clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea,  Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool), have won it on 23 occasions.   Since 1992 there have only been five years when one of Arsenal, Chelsea or Man Utd hasn’t appeared in the final, and only one occasion (2008, when Portsmouth and Cardiff lined up), when none of the ‘Big Five’ got there. So we can say, looking at the trends that it’s long odds-on at least one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool and Man City will be at Wembley on 15th May- and there’s about a 40% chance that the final will be a ‘Big Five clash. In two of the last four years, we’ve had an Arsenal v Chelsea final, with the same score (2-1 to the Gunners) each time.

    Regarding the League positions of FA Cup winners, it’s interesting that the team in the second place in the Premiership at the time of the third round has had a better record than the team at the top (6 wins to 4), since 1995-6. The team in third place has won it four times since then, as has the team in fifth, but the team in fourth only once. Just one side (Wigan in 2013) from outside the top ten in the Premiership has won the trophy since 1996. So according to that ‘positioning’ stat, the likeliest winners of the Cup this season are Man Utd, Liverpool, Leicester City and Man City.    

    While the tournament has been dominated by the aforementioned ‘Big Five’, six Premiership teams from outside the elite group have made the final in the last decade, so there could be some each-way value found here. What could make this year’s competition different from a punting point of view is the lack of crowds. We can all remember Cup ties when ‘big’ clubs got lucky with penalty decisions because of the roar of their spectators, but equally, a vociferous home crowd has been a great help to giant-killers of the past too.

    This year’s Premiership title race has been a lot more competitive than many people thought, but is that because of the ’leveller’ of playing behind closed doors, or simply that the best teams of last season haven’t been quite as good this year? What we can say is that home advantage, usually so important in the Cup, will be less so this year.

    One thing we can’t of course predict is the draw. You might look at the trends and think a Man City v Leicester City constitutes a good ‘Name the finalists’ bet, and then find they draw each other in the very next round. And the chances of a team from outside the ‘Big Five’ reaching the final could depend on the elite teams drawing each other at some stage. Let’s now take a closer look at the most likely winners, plus some possible longer-priced outsiders.

    MAN CITY. Odds: 3-1.

    Considering how strong they’ve been in the League and League Cup since 2010 it’s quite surprising that Pep Guardiola’s boys have only won the FA Cup twice in that time, in 2011 and 2019. This year they have an eminently winnable third-round tie with Birmingham and are going into the competition in really good form, being unbeaten in their last 12 matches. The 3-1 is short enough, but they still probably rate the likeliest winners.

    LIVERPOOL Odds: 7-1.

    Definitely, overdue a Cup success as they haven’t won the competition since 2006, and not reached the final since 2012. They face a potentially tricky away third-round tie at Aston Villa, who thrashed them 7-2 in the league, but that task may have got a lot easier with Villa likely to put the youngsters in because of a number of first-team regulars testing positive for Coronavirus. The reigning champions are obviously good enough to win the FA Cup but the big question about their chances is how seriously will manager Jurgen Klopp take this competition. It hasn’t been his priority in recent seasons, and they have only got past round 4 once since 2014. If priorities do change, they’d be valued at 7s, but Klopp is likely to put his main focus on the Premiership and Champions League once again.

    TOTTENHAM Odds 7-1.

    Did have a great FA Cup pedigree, winning it six times between 1961 and 1991, but it’s been thirty years since they last reached the final. That said, if anyone can get Spurs to Wembley again, it’s Mourinho: this, together with the League Cup, is his best chance of silverware, and the ‘Special One’ has taken teams to the final in 2007 and 2018. They’re unlikely to be sunk by non-league Marine in the third round.

    CHELSEA Odds; 13-2.

    Since 1994, the Blues have had an incredible record in the competition, winning it seven times and reaching the final on twelve occasions. They’ve had a dip in form over Christmas but Frank Lampard’s men should have few problems at home to League Two Morecambe in round three and can’t be ruled out having another good run.

    MAN UTD Best odds 9-1.

    The Red Devils have reached the final nine times since 1994, and have reached at least the semi-finals in the three of the last five seasons, so they’re a team you can’t leave out of calculations, especially as they’ve been in fine form in late 2020. A third-round home tie with Championship Watford is no gimme though, especially if top players are rested, but if they get through that without too many stings from ‘The Hornets’ they can go deep in the competition for the seventh year running.

    ARSENAL. Odds 11-1.

    The undoubted Kings of the Cup, the Gunners have won it more times (14) than anyone else- and that includes four wins in the last seven seasons. Seeing their pedigree, 11-1 looks too big, that’s partly because they face another Premiership side (Newcastle) in Round 3, but also because their league form up to Christmas was poor. It’s improved now though, but will it be enough, considering no side placed 11th on the third-round weekend has won the Cup in the last 25 years?

    LEICESTER CITY have been knocking on the door in Cup competitions (quarter-finalists in this in two of the last three seasons) and could represent good each way value at 20s, though they do have a potentially tricky third round away tie to Stoke to negotiate.

    EVERTON, as predicted in my Sputnik IP Guide to the Premiership are having a good season and are available at around 16-1. The Toffees should get past Championship strugglers Rotherham at home in round 3, and might be in store for their best run since 2016 when they were unlucky losers in the semi-final.

    WOLVES are a match for anyone on their day and were very unfortunate not to reach the final in 2019 when they threw away a 2-0 lead with just eleven minutes to go in the semi-final v Watford. You’d have to give them a squeak, (if not a howl), at 25s, but first they have to beat fellow Premiership side Crystal Palace- who reached the quarters in 2019, in the third round.

    SOUTHAMPTON last got to the FA Cup final in 2003, but they’re having a great season and showed with their recent 1-0 defeat of champions Liverpool they can really mix it with the best. At 22-1 they could be good each-way value, as they should be able to tame Shrewsbury at home in round three.

    WEST HAM, available at 25-1, came so close to winning the Cup in 2006, and although their recent form in the competition is poor, the Hammers are playing well at present and should get past Stockport at the weekend opening up the prospect of a decent run.

    LEEDS (33-1), have exited at the third round stage in seven of the last ten years, but they could- and should- have beaten the eventual winners Arsenal last year and have a winnable away third round tie at Crawley.

    Others: NEWCASTLE had their best Cup run for many years last season, reaching the quarter-finals, but they’re 100-1 this time because of their away third round draw at Arsenal. BRIGHTON reached the quarters in 2018 and the semis a year later but are 66-1 this time, and could be vulnerable with a tricky tie away at traditional giant killers Newport County in the third round. ASTON VILLA, beaten finalists in 2015, are having a great campaign, but are likely to put the kids out against Liverpool in round three and that tempers enthusiasm for their each-way chances.

    SHEFFIELD UTD are 100-1 and although the competition could provide the Blades with some welcome relief from a nightmarish League season, they’re unlikely to be good enough to get to the final, and there’s similar concerns with 150-1 shots WEST BROM, who, like FULHAM (100-1), will surely prioritise Premiership survival. BURNLEY are also 100-1 and make a little bit more appeal, but they’ve only got beyond round 4 once in the last nine seasons. It’s seventeen years since a team from outside the Premiership (Millwall) made the final, but championship high-flyers NORWICH (150-1), SWANSEA (150-1) and MILLWALL (250-1) themselves, who invariably go well in the competition, might ruffle a few feathers.

    Follow Neil Clark @NeilClark66 and @MightyMagyar


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

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