FA Cup supporters were blessed with splendid lineups when the tournament resumed play following the COVID-19 pause. With Liverpool and Manchester City having clinched 1st and 2nd place in the English Premier League respectively, the FA Cup had already become the most-coveted domestic title still up for grabs.
Now it’s on to the semifinals, the juncture at which we’re used to managers throwing caution aside and going all-out to win. So what then is the difference between the 2020 Football Association Cup semifinals and the FA Cup semifinals of any other cycle? Not much, really…except for the added pressure teams might be feeling. The 4 surviving clubs are eager to show sports-deprived viewers who’s most dazzling to watch when eliminating a rival. League fans have already identified, celebrated, and debated a new champion as of…well, as of January if they were being real. FA Cup contests represent a fresh start and a championship that Liverpool can’t render a moot point.
Oh, and the fact that current schedules grow more and more daunting per the number of competitions a team is playing in. Man City is recovering from 3 matches in 6 days only to face Cherries this Wednesday prior to Saturday’s trek to Wembley Stadium. Manchester United has to play Thursday evening before kicking-off at an earlier time vs Chelsea in Sunday’s semifinal, and Arsenal FC will enjoy even less rest between a league match with Liverpool and the Saturday bout with City. All semifinalists except Arsenal have upcoming UEFA restarts to prepare for.
Teams like Sheffield United and Burnley get to cheer for EPL aristocrats this weekend and possibly again on 8/1. Typically, supporters of Blades or Clarets would want the top clubs in the Premier League to win and keep fellow have-nots from gaining points in the race to avoid relegation. That’s changed this season as Sheffield and Burnley are among blue-collar Premiership sides with top-half status after 35 matches and potential UEFA bids still in sight. In fact, there are scenarios in which 7 English clubs could play in UEFA competitions next cycle, but only if a top-6 club on the table wins the FA Cup. Therefore, an Arsenal triumph in the FA Cup final could keep current #7 Sheffield (or even #10 Burnley) out of qualification for the 2020-21 Europa League.
Gambling odds on the semifinals could change depending on the outcomes of weekday league matches. Suppose, for instance, Liverpool beats Arsenal by 3 or 4 goals on Thursday. Would punters conclude that Gunners’ form has suddenly reverted to the worst days of 2019-20, and stretch Saturday’s spread in Man City’s direction? Or conclude that Mikel Arteta simply dialed-down Thursday’s effort once Liverpool was solidly ahead, with such an important elimination fixture happening less than 48 hours later? Bettors should obviously conclude the latter, but there’s no substitute for what a round of final scores can do to the gambling action.
How else may the betting community be mislead headed into an FA Cup weekend? And how can wiseguys (or gals) take advantage?
Arsenal FC vs Manchester City
Sky Blues have been in impeccable form ever since the Premier League restarted, leaving proud teams with no room for debate. Liverpool fell 4-0 in a battle of titans. Newcastle and Brighton have met City in 3 separate matches, losing 12-0 “on aggregate.”
But then there are the 2 fixtures in which Pep Guardiola’s club was beaten 4 days apart. Southampton beat City 1-0 on 7/5 as Citizens possessed the ball fruitlessly for 60+ minutes and failed to score on 13 corner kicks. Prior to that long-odds stunner, Chelsea Football Club managed a 2-1 win over Sky Blues thanks to a dreadful 2nd-half interval in which Fernandinho was ushered-off with a red card and Willian scored a penalty for Pensioners.
Is there a common thread in the 2 aforementioned City losses? Lineup issues and omissions is a good place to start. World Cup defender John Stones did not play in either contest, and his Three Lions mate Kyle Walker saw limited time at right-back until more recently. Neither Kevin de Bruyne or Raheem Sterling played the entire match against Southampton.
Stones and Walker are footballers whose quality is so obvious, they’re turned into click-bait by tabloids on a weekly basis. Stones, like Paul Pogba of Manchester United, has been a part of 30 or 40 “BREAKING! TRANSFER IMMINENT!” headlines over the past year. Funny that they both still play for their “old” clubs in Manchester after being “transferred” a combined 50 times.
Arsenal deserves its rap as a flaky defending club. There is probably no way Gunners can forge a clean sheet on Saturday – even with Sergio Agüero’s injury absence – unless Bernd Leno or Emiliano Martinez has an immaculate goalkeeping day. However, I’m thinking that City’s lineup isn’t elite enough at present to stop a clever attacking squad in the 1st half.
Look for shots on-target and probably a goal or 2 from Gunners, and a roaring response from City as the match wears on. Citizens are unlikely to fall in a tournament Manchester City just hasn’t been losing in. But a diddy-bump 2-0 win with lots of stalling is not the result to be expected. I’m liking Bovada’s (EVEN) payoff odds on Over (3.5) goals and a halftime-full time prop market.
Pick: Over and/or Draw at Halftime + City-to-win Prop Bet (+320)
Manchester United vs Chelsea FC
Red Devils looked a touch overconfident in the 2nd half vs Southampton on Monday. And why wouldn’t Manchester United be feeling confident? The team had won 5 matches in a row and was undefeated (and is still undefeated) since the coronavirus break. Marcus Rashford is developing into a superstar, Anthony Martial isn’t far behind, and keeper David de Gea is starting to look comfortable behind a pair of indomitable center backs in Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire.
But overconfidence is overconfidence, and Saints’ rope-a-dope tactics paid off in added minutes against a United side that had gone to sleep.
Chelsea, meanwhile, has looked shaky in 2 consecutive outings. Blues followed a thrilling 5-1-0 league run with an 0-3 loss to Sheffield United, thrown-off by foul stoppages and inaccurate shots and unable to stem counterattacks generated by Blades’ 3-5-2 formation. Kepa and the back line rebounded with a clean sheet against Premier League caboose Norwich City this week, but the squad again misfired on more than 2/3rds of its shot attempts.
Odds on Sunday’s match have been affected by the discrepancy in form. Chelsea is a (+205) wager to win at Wembley Stadium compared to Man United’s (+135). The Over/Under line is a paltry (2.5) thanks to the notion that Kepa could be Pensioners’ best player in the match.
I’m not buying that, because Chelsea manager Frank Lampard was playing the same kind of lineup games vs Canaries that Guardiola played in his team’s freakish loss to Southampton. Tammy Abraham and Ross Barkley didn’t play until well into the 2nd half, and Christian Pulisic was pulled in the 80th minute instead of being moved into his natural midfield position. Lampard correctly surmised that a youthful team can’t dominate every opponent all the time, that the Sheffield result was anomalous and not a reason to panic, and that a judicious effort on Tuesday would be enough to overcome Norwich and grab 3 points. He was exactly right. A manager being correct about something shouldn’t lead to a team losing action in London.
Man United will play Crystal Palace on Thursday and likely win. Eagles are having a hard go of it since the restart and have little to play for at 11 points clear of relegation. A sizable win from United could drive the odds further in Red Devils’ direction for Sunday’s semifinal.
Chelsea is the pick, but wait and watch the scoreboard on Thursday before putting units on the underdog moneyline. If United is losing, Sunday’s odds will start to even out, but not before you’re able to bet Chelsea at more-or-less the same odds available now. If United puts on a cracking show at Selhurst Park and destroys Palace by 2-4 goals, then Chelsea’s FA Cup odds will probably lengthen to an even more-lucrative potential payout.
Not a bad deal when your pick is resting while everyone else’s pick is getting tired.
Pick: Chelsea FC (+205) or (+0.5) ATS
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.