The third round of the FA Cup is a sporting institution. Much like The Open, Grand National, Derby, or Six Nations, the third round still has a mystical element to it, even with so many different aims for clubs nowadays who have competing priorities.
The entry of the top clubs in the country against those who have fought through the earlier rounds can lead to many a magical moment. Think of Sutton’s upset against Coventry in 88, George Grahams’ Arsenal being knocked out by Milwall, Leeds stunning Manchester United (and Exeter doing the same), Shrewsbury shocking Everton and Woking turning up the Hawthorns – and that’s just the third round.
Neutrals love cupsets, and they can definitely provide betting value in the run of the tournament, but when looking for a winner history points us to just one group. The only two clubs outside what could be defined the ‘Big Six’ (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool) to win the trophy since 1994-95 are Wigan (2012/13) and Portsmouth (2007/08). Every other winner has actually been from a group of Manchester City/Manchester United, Arsenal Chelsea and Liverpool, telling us that squad firepower wins out.
City, who swept all before them domestically last year, are understandable 3/1 favourites for the trophy. The sheer strength of their squad – Claudio Bravo Joao Cancelo (7), Eric Garcia, Angelino, Rodri, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling at Oxford United all started in the League Cup – will give them a chance, but having won everything beforehand, this is surely the season in which they focus on the Champions League above all else.
With Liverpool so far clear in the league, this is surely the year they focus on Europe to the exclusion of all else and assuming that they make the quarter-finals, they would have a clash with last-16 second leg at home to Real Madrid. The semis of the FA Cup clash with the second leg of the quarter-finals, too and in that situation, assuming City’s progress in both, there’s only one priority and it’s going to be Europe. In any case, 3/1 is terribly short.
Liverpool’s overriding priority is surely going to be to win a first Premier League title, and we’ve already seen Jurgen Klopp put out a much-changed side in the League Cup twice, and Liverpool could still be fighting on the front lines of European football later on. Chelsea have contested two of the last three FA Cup finals and Frank Lampard has proven himself adept at Cup football so far.
They are tempting, but they could well find themselves in a protracted battle for another top-four spot, and their tie against Bayern Munich sees the second leg take place before the Quarter-Finals weekend. It would be no surprise if Lampard chose both the Premier League and Champions League over the cup, for all that they have a kind draw against Nottingham Forest first up.
Leicester, who have taken much of the league by storm this season, are challenging the Big Six in the Premier League and they could be value for the Cup too. European football is obviously a big target for them this season, but they have a nine-point gap over Chelsea in fourth now and they’ve also faced Liverpool twice and travelled to Manchester City.
That surely gives them the space for a cup run and Leicester have already made the semi-finals of the EFL Cup, thanks in no small part to selecting a strong team. They somehow let a 2-0 lead slip in the quarter-finals there when in control but made it through the penalty shootout and the side Rogers selected was a serious one – the starting XI was Kasper Schmeichel, Ricardo Periera, Wes Morgan, Jonny Evans, Ben Chilwell, Wilfred Ndidi, Dennis Praet, James Maddison, Ayoze Perez, Marc Albrighton, and Jamie Vardy.
That featured just three changes from their previous Premier League game despite facing Manchester City and leaders Liverpool in short succession, and Rogers showed the depth of Leicester’s squad when he made nine changes for a trip to West Ham after Leicester’s loss to Liverpool just 48 hours before, and was rewarded with a 2-1 win.
Leicester could have the distraction of a League Cup final but they have been given a better draw than most, starting at home against Wigan, and then there’s be few games they’d fear in the draw. Leicester have no European football, either, and Rogers – who won two William Hill Scottish Cups and three Betfred League Cups with Celtic – will rarely have a better chance to win something south of the border with Leicester.
It might sound funny to say that there are more risks attached with backing Tottenham, who will face RB Leipzig in the Champions League’s last 16, but if they can navigate a tricky tie at a resurgent Middlesbrough today then the draw could open up for them in future rounds.
There is a worry about a dire defensive record in the Premier League which is putting their chances of a top-four spot in peril – Tottenham haven’t kept a clean sheet away from home in the Premier League for one year and they’ve now conceded 18 goals since Mourinho arrived – but that could simply make the FA Cup a more attractive option and Mourinho, if he can get to grips with Spurs, does have a squad that should give Spurs good chance for a cup run.
It’s likely that Lucas Moura will lead the line against Middlesbrough, with Giovanni Lo Celso, Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko, Davinson Sanchez and Ryan Sessegnon, and Mourinho has played strong sides in previous cup competitions to boot.
Jose Mourinho will be eager to give Spurs a first trophy in over ten years and the FA Cup could end up being by far their best opportunity to do so. He’s only won one FA Cup with Chelsea, but he’s won domestic cups at every job he’s held and the mission may well be a personal one this time, with Spurs needing something to show for one of the best teams they’ve had.
Whoever makes it through the big third-round clash between last year’s quarter-finalists Manchester United or Wolves will be big runners, although they will be in battles for both the fourth-placed spot in the Premier League and potentially the latter stages of the Europa League.
Arsenal have looked much improved under Mikel Arteta in the Premier League, and their progress in the Europa League shows they can put out a decent side at short notice. However, it remains to be seen how the club shapes going forward under the Spaniard, who will have plenty on his plate, and they are notoriously poor travellers too – also, will the Europa League be the priority or will they chase what could be a top-four spot? Leeds at home is hardly an easy first-round fixture either.
With this in mind, it makes sense to have one outsider at a bigger price in case of a big cup run. We have Watford placed as runners up last season and we have seen Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Hull, Stoke and Portsmouth make it to Wembley.
Southampton – who once looked to be favourites for relegation back in the Autumn – will have Premier League matters on their mind first and foremost but they have improved rapidly in recent weeks which could give them the space for a cup run. Ralph Hasenhuttl is making changes today after a hectic festive period but opponents Huddersfield are fighting for Championship survival so it would be no surprise to see a different lineup from the visitors too, especially with a lot of injuries. Southampton’s ratings – they would be eight places higher in the Premier League according to an expected goals table – suggest they can pull away from danger.
They didn’t have much chance against Manchester City in the EFL Cup but they’d sent out strong teams for both of their previous games.
2.5 pts each/way Leicester (14/1 Boylesports, 12/1 general)
1 pt each/way Tottenham (8/1 Betway)
1 pt each/way Southampton (66/1 general)