ALL four of this weekend’s FA Cup quarter-finals sees the home sides priced as favourites and this doesn’t surprise because when combined 103 league places separate the hosts from their visitors. Indeed, if you’re feeling especially fanciful and back a fourfold of away wins it offers up 8000/1.
Going off the odds that makes it nearly three times less likely to happen than Fulham winning the Premier League this season, not that the Cottagers have any serious designs on miraculously pulling back a 27-point gap on the Gunners. For them, a trip to Old Trafford this Sunday is challenge enough, presenting an opportunity to reach a FA Cup semi for the first time in two decades.
For that to transpire Marco Silva’s men must end a 21-game unbeaten home record for Manchester United across all comps, a run that’s seen Marcus Rashford and company average 2.2 goals-per-90 and concede every 172 minutes.
If that were not concerning enough for Fulham, throughout this highly impressive and sustained streak United have been far more prolific in the cups on home soil (2.7 goals-per-90) than the league (1.8).
It’s a prolificacy partly deriving from Erik Ten Hag’s insistence on making minimal changes to his line-up regardless of the competition, and with only a routine finishing-off of Real Betis lying in wait before an international break we can expect another strong showing here. That means Antony, Weghorst and Rashford all to start up front, the latter bagging nearly a third of United’s entire haul this term.
Granted, being deprived of Casemiro is a significant loss but a continuation of United’s excellent run should be backed all the same and don’t discount the contest being decided early doors. Fulham are starting to chug a little of late as their slender squad tires from a fine campaign to this point, and maybe it matters too that only three teams have conceded more times in the first half of league games in 2022/23.
Saturday evening meanwhile throws up the highly intriguing prospect of Vincent Kompany returning to the Etihad, bringing with him a fully-formed, all-conquering and sensationally good Burnley side that has ripped the Championship to smithereens this season.
Buying wholesale into the Belgian’s high-intensity, attacking philosophy a transformed Clarets have averaged 2.2 points-per-game as they race to what feels like an inevitable title, scoring 1.9 goals-per-90 in the process. Moreover, they boast a league-high of 19 different goal-scorers and what particularly catches the eye is their chance conversion rate of 11.5%.
When excellence is combined with accuracy any team can be bested, great, good or Wigan.
Can this superb collective therefore trouble a Manchester City side that continues to perplex, looking imperious for the most part but appearing a touch flat and disjointed elsewhere? Of course they can, but the absence of Josh Brownhill is huge for the visitors, the 27-year-old being statistically their best player this term and the conjurer of 1.7 key passes per game.
As for City, it’s maybe sensible not to get too carried away by toiling displays, as evidenced at Selhurst Park last week. In their eight fixtures since enduring a season’s nadir at Spurs, the Blues have won six and drawn twice, notching inside half-an-hour on six occasions.
It’s a testament to Burnley’s brilliant campaign that nowhere was it mentioned above that on four occasions in recent years that have been spanked 5-0 in East Manchester. It’s simply not relevant.
On a similar note, Sheffield United’s comprehensive 3-0 thumping of Blackburn last August should be largely discounted as these two Championship promotion-chasers go head-to-head at Bramall Lane.
Of far more pertinence is Blackburn’s 1-0 victory over the Blades a fortnight ago, a win that saw Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side cede most of the possession but trouble their opponents throughout on the counter. This they did extremely well and we can anticipate an identical game-plan being deployed in Yorkshire.
It may indeed work again too because United’s season is starting to come apart at the seams, a fantastic run from mid-October to mid-February giving way to four defeats in six. A rousing cup win over Spurs in the fifth round gives a false impression of where they are at present, a team that’s hit a proverbial brick wall.
By stark contrast, Rovers have found a way out of their own mire, firmly putting behind some drawn-out poor form going into 2023 and subsequently losing only twice in 15 this year.
It is the visitors therefore who should be fancied to prevail but a high-scoring affair feels distinctly unlikely. Sheffield United’s last five games have finished 1-0 either way while 10 of those 15 for Blackburn featured two goals or less.
Lastly, we come to the remaining underdog story left in the FA Cup this season and given the late juncture of the competition Grimsby are deserving of enormous praise for having made it so far. Indeed, the Mariners are only the sixth team from the fourth tier or below to ever reach the last eight.
As with their headline-grabbing victory over Southampton in the previous round several thousand of their fans will make the long trip to the south coast and they will be hoping beyond hope that their difference-maker Jon McAtee can pull off something special, or winger Harry Clifton can add to his six goals this term.
In all probability though, and at the risk of being a party-pooper, this is Brighton’s to lose and going off their seasonal output, they won’t.
From an awful lot to admire about the Seagulls what especially stands out is the sheer volume of efforts on goal their fluid endeavours brings them, with 92 attempts alone in their last five outings.
Crucially too, even when they have an off-day they typically find a way, scoring twice at Leeds last weekend from just two on target and factoring in the sublime form of Kaoru Mitoma – who could conceivably run riot at the Amex against inferior fare – and the recently rejuvenated Alexis Mac Allister, it’s hard to envisage any more shocks from what has been a fascinating tournament to date.