There’s an editor and graphic designer at WagerBop who, from time to time, politely asks for more UEFA Champions League previews in midst of our site’s weekly English domestic picks. I’m all in favor of that, and collaborated with Nikola Velickovic on a series of UEFA futures and moneyline choices on the upcoming Champions League Round of 16.
But I’m drawn to the FA Cup each winter, partially because U.K. football is what I’m most comfortable touting product-knowledge of. Another reason is that in its own way, the FA Cup shares a key appeal of the Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup – it’s an opportunity for supporters of lesser-known clubs on the continent to see their boys match with the big-shots.
When Ajax roared through UEFA elimination ties last spring, it was much the same joy as when Wimbledon and Millwall surprised top-level clubs in the FA Cup earlier in 2019. The biggest difference between the 2 competitions, apart from the Champions League welcoming brands from all over the world, is that the FA Cup is open to all comers, all the time. That invites a fascination that goes beyond David vs Goliath.
Americans can scarcely imagine the New York Yankees in an elimination-game against a Triple-A ball club; fans of frozen pond shinny in Europe can try to picture an “All-Russia” or “All-East” championship in which small-town clubs, knocked out of the Kontinental Hockey League, seek their revenge with Moscow. Only in domestic soccer events like the FA Cup does such a fantasy become reality. The EPL is the consensus #1 professional sports league in the world, but its teams are tasked with proving it all over again every year.
The FA Cup has something to prove as well. Liverpool has made it through a needlessly-dramatic 4th round replay with Shrewsbury Town, due in-part to Jürgen Klopp’s decision to play a veritable youth lineup through a majority of the 2020 tournament. But the scheduling of fixtures (and the old tradition of replays following draws) is being called into focus now that certain Premiership sides seem to be phoning-in the effort.
Liverpool may be a special case. But you can easily summarize the attitude of all 20 Premier League coaches toward the FA Cup – that as much as they’d each love to win the event, it’s a fool’s errand to go all-out from the 3rd round onward with lineups and superstar minutes mirroring reports from EPL Saturdays. Successful, profitable clubs are called to play often, and putting a team into overdrive prior to the stretch run can only lead to disaster on the injury list. Even if your club isn’t competing in the Champions League or the Europa League, you can’t win a Carabao Cup final or an FA Cup final with a broken band of footballers, and veterans’ fatigue in winter might also lead to relegation…and staff changes. Managers want to win any historic title they can. For the skippers with bruised and/or busy squads, reserve-filled tournament lineups are merely a fact of life.
As a team senses a potential FA Cup victory, they’re tempted more and more to treat each elimination fixture like a do-or-die league battle. By the time the Carabao Cup got to the semifinals last season, we were treated to an epic collision between Kepa and Harry Kane, and that event doesn’t hold a candle to the prestige of the Football Association Cup. There will be many more big names vying for domestic hardware in this cycle no matter how many teenagers Klopp tosses onto the pitch.
To handicap FA Cup futures successfully, we’ve got to determine which clubs are deep, versatile, and determined enough to overcome cautious lineup choices and reach the final date in good shape. But to get a handle on 5th round money lines and Over/Under totals, it’s important to note which Premier League teams have the least to lose, since those EPL clubs are the least likely to stay conservative with the rainbow’s end in view.
FA Cup Futures Odds as of Mid-February
It’s a funny thing with great coaches. They’re so successful in so many ways, sometimes people stop noticing. Man City ((+175) odds-to-win 2020 FA Cup) manager Pep Guardiola has been accused of saving his most-devilish game plans for the Champions League this cycle, namely because Reds are lording above Sky Blues on the Premier League table. But take past couple of calendar years into account, and Man City has in fact been marvelous in almost all domestic competitions.
Citizens won the 2019 EFL Cup with a tense round of penalties vs Chelsea and will play for the crown again at Wembley on March 1st. A victory over Aston Villa would mark Manchester City’s 3rd League Cup triumph in a row. Man City is also the defending FA Cup champion, and has drawn the easiest possible 5th-round match against Sheffield Wednesday (+25000) on the ironic date of Wednesday, March 4th.
Oh, and meanwhile, Sky Blues won the English Premier League in 2018-19. Liverpool is on its way to an historic showing atop the table in 2020, but that doesn’t mean City is any less of a force in the broader landscape, especially with Reds perceived as laying-off in every domestic rumble outside the EPL.
Which calls Liverpool’s (+400) FA Cup futures odds into question. In short – excuse the pun – Liverpool’s line should be getting longer following a winter’s worth of understandable, but potentially ill-fated betting action. Punters have been hoping that the natural skill and form advantage wielded by a record-setting Premiership side would be too much for Championship, League One, and bottom-half EPL teams swimming like “minnows” up the ladder, that is until the FA Cup advanced so deep into the final bracket that Klopp would be remiss not to play his best 11. Instead, Reds have drawn 5th-round opponent Chelsea (+900), a young, hungry team which may not have the backline presence to challenge Liverpool or City for Premier League points, but is capable of beating the favorites in a 1-off setting.
Tottenham also looks like a too-sexy choice at (+650) or 6.5-to-1 futures odds to lift the hardware. Daily Mail is suggesting that Jose Mourinho can cement his Spurs regime with an FA Cup victory, but you can’t be thrilled with what an injury-hampered roster has shown in the 2020 event so far. Tottenham has drawn 1-1 with Middlesbrough, eke-ing out a 2-1 win in a physical 3rd-round replay. Southampton was the 4th-round opponent, a club which had upset Spurs in the Premier League in January and refused to lay down to Lilywhites in the FA Cup. Another replay would need to follow, won in comeback fashion by Lucas Moura and Hueng-min Son once Mourinho had brought all forces to bear.
Leicester City (+900) is the pick I would tend to gravitate to, since the club’s worldwide reputation is that of a scrappy contender without the depth of a Liverpool or a Tottenham. Foxes has been a very strong side in a number of recent domestic tournaments, though, standing proudly through a Carabao Cup semifinal run and not allowing a goal in either of 2 FA Cup appearances this season. Leicester is also blessed with a favorable 5th-round draw against visiting Blues of Birmingham City F.C. (+12500) on 3/4.
Man United’s line of (+1400) is in a familiar position – punters are still tempted to take a talented club at 16-to-1 odds despite MUFC’s chronic inconsistency in big appearances. Red Devils crushed Tranmere 6-0 in the 4th round before fighting Man City tooth-and-nail to a 3-2 aggregate Carabao Cup semifinal loss. With 1 less competition to worry about, the team is well alive in the Europa League and may well post impressive records in multiple tournaments this cycle. However, some competitions can be won by out-flanking a pair of key rivals; FA Cups, like World Cups, are obstacle courses in which weaknesses will out and no exemplary performance by a single athlete can save the day – even if it’s a goalkeeper. United remains a tempting, but dubious investment, even at odds that suggest high-rollers have been looking elsewhere.
Sheffield (+2800), Newcastle (+4000), and Canaries of Norwich City (+8000) round-out the low end of the Premiership contingent still playing in the 5th round. Strangely enough, there is more precedent in a “bubble” club like Norwich City earning FA Cup hardware than stronger squads like Blades and Magpies, each headed for fat Premier League runs in the 2020s if recent results are any indication. Arsenal (+1200) and Chelsea have demolished the FA Cup field over the last 2 decades, with City, MUFC, and Liverpool combining for all but 2 of the other championships. Only 2012-13 relegation victim Wigan Athletic has broken through the aristocracy in the last 10 years, winning the FA Cup in a 1-0 stunner over Sky Blues. The “Latics” returned to wreak havoc in the 2014 and 2018 FA Cups despite further relegation into League One in that time frame.
Are any of the 2020 “minnows” able to leap above their FA Cup futures odds, considering that the “shortest” non-EPL club’s line is 100-to-1 on West Bromwich Albion F.C.? West Brom is 1st on the English Championship table despite giving up a healthy total of goals-against, and the club’s tiny “4” in the loss column is more-attributable to a fantastic number of equalizers than stubborn keeping. West Brom vs Newcastle will be an intriguing fixture, but assuming most of the Premier League teams survive to the next round, the draw could get a lot tougher for smaller fish soon.
I’m feeling Reading (+15000) as a swimmer-upstream against visiting Sheffield on the same date. A key aspect of handicapping is to know that many things can happen to a road team after a kickoff – the trick is to understand how they’ll react to what’s behind Door A, B, or C. Blades will be just fine if the score is drawn or in favor of Sheffield United after 45+ minutes. But if Royals manage to stake-out a 1-goal or a 2-goal lead? In that case we could be looking at another kind of “replay” – a reenactment of the crazy events at Millwall and Wimbledon in the 2019 FA Cup. It may be difficult for a Premiership club known for its obsession with defending to change gears rapidly and mount a comeback on enemy turf.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – scroll down for a series of brief moneyline, ATS and goal-total picks at current odds for the 5th round of the 2020 FA Cup.
Portsmouth vs Arsenal
An historic match-up leads off the 5th round on March 2nd. Arsenal has dominated a series with Portsmouth dating back to 1925, but Gunners have experienced notable cold spells against Pompey in scattered eras. Arsenal was embarrassed 0-4 by Man United in the 5th round the year Portsmouth won the FA Cup, and it took well into another decade before the more-heralded side became unstoppable in the event once again. Finally, when Arsenal’s U21 squad faced Portsmouth in a Football League Trophy match in December 2018, Pompey triumphed 1-0 and went on to win the tournament in spring.
Bettors seem to like Arsenal at (-1.5) on the goal spread, and a (-315) moneyline from London and Las Vegas is full of confidence. Gunners have not won or lost a Premier League match for several weeks; the last time 3 points were given-out by EPL scorekeepers, Man United fell to Arsenal by 2 goals at Emirates. Arsenal relied on backup goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez for a clinical 4th-round win over Cherries, but it seems strange that totals for the 5th-round tilt at Fratton Park are as high as a (3.25) Asian Handicap. (Bovada’s number is a heavily-juiced “3.5” with (-185) payoff odds on the low side of the line.) As in the 2-1 victory over Bournemouth that would have been 2-0 were it not for a very late tally in injury minutes, Gunners may be pleased to take an early lead and sit on it for more than a half. Only 14 shots were attempted in the club’s 4th-round battle.
Chelsea F.C. vs Liverpool
You rarely see sets of futures gamblers and moneyline speculators disagree this wholeheartedly. But while Liverpool’s line-to-win the FA Cup Final this spring is 4-to-1, more than twice as short the line for Chelsea Football Club, the March 3rd visitors to Stamford Bridge are only a (+210) wager to win and advance through the 5th round, with Blues granted the favorite’s moneyline at (+115).
Yes, there is logic in a shorter Reds futures line no matter who is destined to win the fixture on 3/3. Liverpool will be the superior club in any match in which it tries as hard as possible to prevail with the best lineup available, even if that doesn’t occur vs Chelsea. But the discrepancy is way too pronounced to be less than a curiosity at the sportsbook. (+115) means Blues have a near even-up chance to eliminate Liverpool on March 3rd and be finished with the best brand in the tournament, long prior to the semifinals. If that’s the case, then why would Reds be touted 4-to-1 to win the whole thing when a loss in the 5th round is just as likely? And if moneyline gamblers think Chelsea is good enough to knock out Liverpool, why isn’t there a huge rush of wagers on the former club to advance and win it all for the 5th time since 2007?
If you like Chelsea to win on 3/3, it could be wise to let each team continue through another handful of matches before laying the money down. Blues are faced with a hard slog over the next few weeks, including visits from MUFC and Spurs and a Champions League leg vs Bayern Munich. If Liverpool continues to roll with its best 11 and reserves alike, and Chelsea slows down against a grind of a schedule, then we could see the odds balance-out weeks before the FA Cup match. For now, though, the real chances of Liverpool and Chelsea are somewhere between the polar extremes represented in the Bovada markets. Chelsea is the better futures pick, but Liverpool is a solid investment at 2-to-1 at almost any time such odds are available.
West Brom vs Newcastle United
I am fed up with Bovada’s “super-juiced” goal totals, which include a (2) goal O/U total on Newcastle’s visit to the Hawthorns on March 3rd…with a (-900) line on the Over (or something like that). So let’s glance over at BetOnline to see what a regular total on the match looks like.
The saner of 2 sportsbooks has the number at (2.5) which at a glance appears to be a “gimme” Over pick. West Brom has not gotten consistently-stellar performances out of its backline, relying on attacking forwards like Charlie Austin and Matt Phillips. Newcastle could conceivably fall to WBA in the 5th round, but it’s unlikely to happen in a 1-0 snoozer no matter what the weather is like. Still, the better wager is probably Newcastle ((+160) back at Bovada Sportsbook) since West Brom is not used to facing the kind of backline or goalkeeper Steve Bruce has at his disposal. Martin Dúbravka and Karl Darlow have combined for 3 clean sheets in Newcastle’s last 4 matches, including a Premier League triumph over Chelsea on 1/18.
Reading F.C. vs Sheffield United
Nothing about Bovada’s (+275) moneyline on the underdog Royals changes how I feel about this handicap as elucidated in the intro above. However, the ‘dog in this fixture is a pure % pick – any Blades weakness is more likely to reveal itself if the visitors do not manage to score in the 1st half on March 3rd. With a lead, Sheffield may prove to be as impenetrable as bookmakers believe.
Pick: Reading or Under (2.5)
Leicester City vs Birmingham City
Foxes would appear to be a profitable lock-down market at (-385), but remember that clubs aren’t always as desperate not to draw an FA Cup result in regulation time as is so-often the case in a 3-points-or-1-point scenario in Premier League play, or in an international round-robin. I can’t see why an Over (3) wager doesn’t make just as much sense as the low-payoff moneyline, since a surprise Blues lead in the 1st half could lead to fireworks, and lord knows there’s a lot more to the Leicester attack than Jamie Vardy. That fact will be on-display yet again on March 4th if the favorites are still in fine form going into spring.
Sheffield Wednesday F.C. vs Manchester City
“Owls” of Sheffield Wednesday F.C. host Citizens at Hillsborough Stadium, where supporters will always pay tribute to those who perished in the infamous human crush at the FA Cup in 1989. I’m hesitant to recommend the Over (3.5) or some sort of City-to-cover or prop odds, and not just because Manchester City has played its way into fixes (not to be confused with “fixtures”) and has even looked anemic on the attack when trying to equalize losing outcomes in mid-winter. City must play Aston Villa for the Football League Cup on March 1st, just 4 days before visiting Hillsborough. If Guardiola is able to commit forward numbers of superstars against Villains – that is, if Man City isn’t bruised and fatigued from its Champions League battle in Madrid on 2/26 – would he even bother doing it again against a Championship club days later?
But look at the spread – City (-2) is an awfully-handy market considering that A) it’s unlikely that the favorites will win by a diddy-bump goal or be upset in the match, B) Owls have lost 11 times in league play in 2019-20 and C) Sheffield Wednesday gave up 2 goals in 10 minutes against visiting Everton last September, not a good sign from the most-recent time the club’s backline had to defend elite speed and striking.
Pick: City ATS
Tottenham Hotspur vs Norwich City
The “virtual Premier League fixture” is destined to be a fixture at the FA Cup once again unless English Championship and League One clubs surprise in the 5th round. Such a pairing is of course Tottenham and visiting Norwich City on March 4th. Canaries (+650) have struggled badly in league play and were eliminated from the Carabao Cup by Reds of Crawley Town at The People’s Pension Stadium. In case 2 out of those 3 allusions make it sound like Canaries time-travelled back to 1985 and lost to a USSR squad deep in the heart of St. Petersburg, the match took place in 2019 in England. Norwich City supporters had only time-travelled a year or 2, back to a time when the club was not in the Premier League and would have been expected to lose to another lower-tier team in the 2nd round of a domestic bracket.
Norwich City’s only bright spots of the season – like a 3-2 win over Man City and 1-1 draws with Tottenham and Arsenal – have been in the comfort of home. Still, I can’t imagine a scenario in which Spurs speculators at current (-275) payoff odds would feel swell going into March, considering Harry Kane’s injury woes and the fact that 1-on-3 payoffs are only worthwhile when a club has a better than 2-in-3 chance to prevail without an extended headache. The clever pick is Draw at nearly 4-to-1, but another likely outcome is Tottenham roaring back after a sluggish 1st half and beating the spread and the Over in the process. I’m waiting on a Spurs live bet at nice odds following a dodgy opening act.
Pick: Draw (+365) or Tottenham In-Play
Derby County vs Manchester United
What’s really weird about Red Devils bringing up the rear in marquee futures markets is Man United (-260) has drawn an easy lot in Round 5, visiting good old Derby County on March 5th. As obsessed as bettors often are with the previous match and the next match in any competition, you’d think that someone would consider MUFC’s upcoming opponent in contrast to say, Chelsea’s next opponent. Then again, the last time Red Devils met Rams in an English domestic tournament, bookmakers paid out a princely sum to lonely believers in Cinderella…who won bigly in the Draw market and the on “to-advance” prop line.
Many current MUFC charges were in the lineup that day, including Juan Mata and Nemanja Matić, the former scoring while the latter took a yellow card. Keeper Sergio Romero took a costly red card in the 2nd half. The fixture’s memory as a physical game between worthy starting 11s makes it more significant than an ordinary “3rd round Carabao Cup” result, or a typical 3rd-round FA Cup outcome for that matter. Not that Red Devils weren’t a vastly-different club with Lukaku fronting a 4-2-3-1 and Mourinho calling the shots. But I believe that Man United’s ’18-alumni will take winning outright as a matter of pride in the 5th-round fixture on 3/5, much as Liverpool responded well to a humiliating FA Cup draw with Shrewsbury Town earlier this winter.
When a strong Premiership side plays well-organized football against another top-level team, the result is often a low-scoring match. When a talented EPL club plays tuned-in, shout-and-scurry offense against a lower-level squad, the result is usually a lot of goals, and some sunny trots around the pitch even on a rainy day.
Pick: Over (3) or Man United (-1.5)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.