The first week in January is not necessarily a time most people look forward to. There are usually a million Christmas Bills, the tree has to be taken down, so do the decorations, and then of course there are the challenges, such as staying dry, or going vegan, even though the latter has been helped a great deal by the presence of one particular sausage roll.
The FA Cup however, does have its third round, famed as being one of the great footballing occasions of the season as the Premier League clubs enter the fray.
It is a competition that we love for shocks, true Britishness and David v Goliath matchups, but at the end of a long hard season, the cream rises to the top. In the last 22 years, only Wigan and Portsmouth are the only two teams from outside what we would call the ‘Big Six’ – that being the Manchester pairing, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – to win the competition, and this despite an decreasing amount of interest in the earlier rounds from top managers along with the increasing amount of focus on either making the top 4 or going deep into the Champions League.
That’s a powerful reflection of just how six clubs have begun to pull away from the rest of the footballing country, but this season there are holes in the leading contenders.
Following an epic game between the two, Liverpool and Manchester City are neck and neck in the Premier League. The Citizens are aiming to be the first team to retain their title in 10 seasons but don’t forget the bigger picture – that the club is aiming for a first Champions League title under Guardiola. Their third round tie against Rotherham at home is ideal, but they also have the distraction of a pair of League Cup semi-final ties. This could be a first ever Premier League title for Liverpool – who are four points clear having played City at home and away – and a first league title in 29 years, whilst they can also harbor significant Champions League progress.
Liverpool have been handed a rather nasty opening draw against Wolves, which is frustrating given that Wolves would have been ideal contenders but this is surely not going to be the main aim for them this time for them.
Chelsea, last season’s winners, are serious potential contenders although both they and Tottenham are in a League Cup semi-final. Maurizio Sarri’s men are very good when on form, although they will be reliant upon Eden Hazard when bigger opposition comes given some of their striking issues, and they are also chasing a Top 4 spot. Spurs also have a crunch Champions League first-round encounter with Borussia Dortmund on the 13th February) right before the fifth round (16th February) and they are also close enough to be chasing the title race as well.
None of these concerns affect Manchester United, a name wrapped in FA Cup history. Now yes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has just arrived there and things would get tougher through the competition but they’ve won all four of their games with him at the head of affairs and in just two weeks he’s transformed the morale of the club.
They showed good fight to come through their toughest assignment so far – a trip to St James’s Park – and whatever Solskjaer is doing it’s clearly working. His managerial experience might be light compared to others but United are thriving with the gloves off going forward and that freedom could be perfect for the FA Cup.
United have the strength in depth to balance between competitions. When they went out to Derby in the League Cup, they started with an XI of Romero, Dalot, Bailly, Jones, Young, Mata, Matic, Herrera, Lingard, Lukaku, and Martial – an eleven that many would consider satisfactory for any Premier League game.
They are seven points clear of Leicester in seventh so Solskjaer doesn’t need to be looking over his shoulder and their first round encounter against Reading is a fair one. Whilst they are facing PSG in the Champions League, but regardless of their progression this is their most realistic chance of a trophy according to the bookmakers and it would be a surprise if they did not aggressively chase this trophy.
Arsenal do make a fair amount of appeal at 10’s with Bet365. Long odds on to beat Blackpool, they are bursting with attacking talent and have generally been pretty solid under Unai Emery, although the worry is that they are vulnerable to being caught short in defense.
Much will depend on just how strong Emery makes his team if/when they draw better opposition – Emery has used the youth with vigor in the Europa League and Carabao Cup – but this is one of two competitions they have a realistic chance of targeting and Emery is known to enjoy Cup success as well.
Crystal Palace, Hull, Aston Villa, Stoke, Portsmouth and of course Wigan have been finalists in the past nine seasons so there is plenty of value in having a bet outside of the Top 6 and Watford make appeal. They managed to take Tottenham to a 2-2 draw in the Carabo Cup before they then went out on penalties and a strong season sees them make January in eighth place.
Javi Garcia’s men have seen things get a little tougher recently for them in the league but they are still well clear of any sort of relegation trouble and this looks an ideal target. They are performing better at this stage than their previous two campaigns which suggest they can go further this season than last, when Southampton knocked them out in the fourth round.
50’s looks big for a side that will be especially tough to beat at Vicarage Road with some luck in the draw. They are five divisions ahead of Woking, who they visit tomorrow, and then on the draw will be important although there’s no team they should fear at home.
2 pts each/way Manchester United (9/1 Bet365, 7/1 general)
1 pt each/way Watford (50/1 MarathonBet, 40/1 general)