IT instinctively feels like cup upsets are becoming scarcer with Premier League squads stockpiled to the hilt while the gap between the Championship and the lower leagues widens year on year. In fact, last season’s FA Cup third round saw five teams beat opponents from a higher division with two of them – Crawley Town’s victory over Leeds and Chorley beating Derby – containing every magical element of a giant-killing bar John Motson’s voice breaking up on commentary and kids in duffel coats swarming onto the pitch. Twelve months earlier, six teams upset the odds and in 2018/19 ten underdogs prevailed.
They still occur then, with the occasional fairytale reminding us that anything is possible over ninety minutes of football. It’s just that the truly unexpected slayings no longer feature gasfitters and postmen but rather fellow professionals of a lower standard. It’s just that these beautiful moments no longer make the lead story on the national news.
As reassuring as this is to learn, from a betting perspective it places us in a quandary, one that we encounter every time this compelling weekend rolls around. Because even when acknowledging that upsets persist in the dramatically polarized modern game it still feels like one hell of a hail Mary to back rank outsiders Chesterfield to progress past Chelsea on Saturday. The Spireites are 20-1 for twenty good reasons. Backing Chelsea meanwhile leaves us searching in vain for value.
Perhaps therefore it makes sense to seek out some middle ground; to identify a very possible upset that wouldn’t really be an upset; more of an eyebrow-raiser when the result comes in. The FA Cup has always been rife with them, and value is in plentiful supply.
Take Charlton Athletic’s hosting of Norwich on Sunday afternoon. The Addicks are 7/2 to win and that seems perfectly fair given they reside mid-table in League One while the Canaries are – for now – among the elite. Yet a closer inspection of each club’s circumstances reveals the playing field is far more level than first appears with the League One side on a high since the appointment of Johnnie Jackson, initially on a temporary basis, then made permanent a week before Christmas. As for Norwich, their struggles are reaching epic proportions.
A grand total of 38 places separates these sides but that is merely admin. After beginning their campaign in horrendous fashion and flirting with the drop under Nigel Adkins, Charlton lost just one in nine and kept six clean sheets until a recent reality check has seen them defeated twice on the bounce. Both losses were to top six teams however and both to the narrowest of margins.
A big part of their turn-around has come courtesy of Conor Washington rediscovering his goal-scoring boots, firing six in seven, and the Northern Irishman returns from a Covid-related absence here. He will be roared on by a capacity crowd at The Valley all sensing a prized scalp and why not because right now Norwich are in freefall. A brief upturn in fortunes under Dean Smith has given way to more misery and all told they have conceded 2.2 goals per game in 2021/22 and converted only four from open play. In their last five league games, the abject Canaries have faced a shot on their goal every 5.4 minutes, a figure that astounds.
Another conceivable cup shock that won’t actually shock that much may occur at Wolves, with Sheffield United heading to the Black Country chomping at the bit after having three consecutive matches postponed due to Covid outbreaks in the opposition camps.
No team is in better form than the Blades presently in the Championship having ignited and united from the recent appointment of Paul Heckingbottom and though it already feels like a lifetime ago, they greatly impressed away at Fulham in their last competitive fixture, emerging with a 1-0 win despite posting just 29% possession throughout. Against a side with promotion firmly on their radar, it was a masterclass in controlling a game minus the ball and should they go to Molineux and do likewise then a much-changed Wolves side – a likely event – who are prioritizing their Premier League mandate may encounter a decidedly tough afternoon.
3️⃣0️⃣ years ago today, one of the ???????????????????????????????? FA Cup Giant Killings of all time took place ⚔️
Reigning First Division champions Arsenal came crashing out of the third round at the hands of @Wrexham_AFC , who had finished the previous season bottom of the Fourth Division! ???? pic.twitter.com/0K8n4G7Nyw
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 4, 2022
Rotherham’s trip to Loftus Road is another to pay close attention to, featuring two sides enjoying tremendous campaigns a league apart.
The Millers top League One with Paul Warne’s men having lost only once in their last 18. Crucially too, if we’re adhering to cup cliches, they also possess a goal-scoring hero in waiting with the prolific Michael Smith converting every 145 minutes across 2021/22.
Yet it is QPR who are expected to progress, in fine form as they are, coming off the back of consecutive 2-1 away wins in the Championship; results that returned them to the play-off mix. It is precisely this however that casts doubt on their motivation this weekend as a critical clash with West Brom lies in wait seven days later.
Will the Hoops be fully up for this? Do they need the distraction of a cup run while the golden rewards of the top-flight remains a semi-realistic aspiration? Furthermore, with goalkeeper Seny Dieng, Osman Kakay and Ilias Chair all away at AFCON and elsewhere Mark Warburton’s squad weakened by injuries, should Rotherham be fancied regardless?
QPR recently found the net in 31 consecutive matches while the Millers have only been out-scored by Sunderland in the third tier. Rotherham to win and for both teams to score is a cracking price at 7/1.
Lastly, there is Nottingham Forest vs Arsenal, a contest that doesn’t overly hint at a surprise considering that Mikel Arteta’s understudies have already put six past West Brom and five past Sunderland in the EFL Cup this term. And the Spaniard will surely turn to his squad periphery again after deploying only 12 players in his last six league fixtures.
Yet even factoring in Forest’s two recent league losses it would be remiss to ignore their vast improvement since Steve Cooper took up the reins in September, putting together a nine-game unbeaten spell prior to Christmas. In Lewis Grabban they have a player who has already hit double figures and though it’s little more than a quirk, this very same fixture played out in the third round three years ago. Forest won out 4-2.
Arsenal rightfully are the favourites at the City Ground but 4/1 for a home win is worth a punt given the full context that includes the Gunners imploding last Saturday and yes, that intangible magic of the cup.