Super Serge to star for Arsenal
Ben Coley and Nick Hext preview Saturday's FA Cup third-round ties and the former fancies Serge Gnabry to get a rare chance to shine.
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With a new year comes another FA Cup third-round weekend, and punters will be scanning the coupon for that famous upset and the chance to say something about the magic of the cup, writes Ben Coley.
Whatever your choice of words, there's no doubt that the competition retains some, if not all, of its charm and it would be a surprise were there not one or two shocks to come from the 32 ties taking place across Saturday and Sunday.
- 1pt Manchester City to beat Blackburn by one goal at 13/4 (Ladbrokes) - City developing a habit of edging to victory and price looks generous
- 1pt Sheffield United (draw no bet) to beat Aston Villa at 11/2 (Ladbrokes) - Villa terrible at home of late and United have cause for optimism under Nigel Clough
- 2pts Reading (draw no bet) to beat Brighton at 17/10 (BetVictor) - Royals have an excellent record at Brighton, who are not at their best at home with just four wins all season
- 1pt Serge Gnabry to score first v Spurs at 17/1 (BetVictor) - scored first once in just two starts this term and Arsenal have few options going forward
- 2pts Coventry to beat Barnsley at 21/10 (General) - have the form to bridge the divisional gap
It's questionable whether there will be one in the weekend's first game, as Manchester City travel to Blackburn looking to keep their hopes of a historic four-trophy season alive.
Manuel Pellegrini's side look increasingly like prospective Premier League champions and the bandwagon is now rolling in all competitions, with 11 wins in 12 games, including that famous victory at the Allianz Arena.
What's particularly noteworthy about their recent form - and worrying for Blackburn fans - is that City have started to win ugly. By that, I clearly am not referring to their movement of the ball but their ability to overcome big challenges one way or another and edge to victory.
Just look at City's recent form for proof. Yes, they've gained plaudits with thumpings of Tottenham and Arsenal, but in the main they've been efficient and ruthless. Their last three games have been against a trio of very different Premier League outfits, and they've emerged from each of them with a one-goal win.
With Saturday in mind, that could be the way to go from a betting perspective even if it's of course possible that they'll outclass Blackburn and run up a decisive margin of victory, as the odds suggest they will.
City to win by exactly a goal for the fourth match running is 13/4 with Ladbrokes and that looks particularly fair against a Blackburn side who've found some form of late, and whose Championship games have typically been decided by the odd goal.
Yes, this is a different test altogether but Pellegrini will make changes and a repeat of their 1-0 win at Stoke in round four of this competition last year is far from impossible.
Indeed, go back another couple and you'll see they were held at Leicester before winning the replay and it may pay to go against the grain and back Blackburn to remain competitive as City try to balance a busy schedule which continues with a midweek League Cup semi-final.
In the afternoon games, there's a case to be made for QPR at Everton but a lack of goals from Harry Redknapp's outfit means they may have to settle for a draw, if indeed they want that as they continue to fight for a return to the Premier League.
Roberto Martinez will surely be keen not to fall at the first hurdle given what he achieved with Wigan last season, too, so on balance it's a game we can avoid even if the hosts look mighty short at 4/11.
Sheffield United have improved in Sky Bet League One since David Weir was replaced by Nigel Clough and they could be the value to cause an upset and knock out Aston Villa.
Make no mistake, there's still plenty of work for Clough and his squad to do if they're to remain in the third tier but things are looking up despite Wednesday's defeat at Walsall, who are among those in the scrummage for a play-off spot.
United return to the Midlands to face a Villa side who have won just twice at home all season in the Premier League compared to three times on the road and with the most recent of those having come in the first week of November, it's clear to me that their pacy attacking unit finds things easier on the break.
Indeed, a glance at their results shows that Villa have failed to even find the net at home in six of their last eight, and when the opposition includes the two teams considered most likely to be relegated by the layers in Crystal Palace and Sunderland, alarm bells start to ring.
It could just be, then, that United are able to contain what will be a much-changed side in all probability, with Villa boss Paul Lambert having a history of using the full depth of his squad in this competition. Last year Villa lost at Millwall in round four while we all of course remember their defeat to Bradford in the Capital One Cup.
Ladbrokes go 11/2 about Sheffield United in their draw-no-bet market and that's well worth an interest, as is the 5/1 quoted generally.
In the same market, it's also worth chancing an away win when Brighton host Reading at the Amex Stadium.
Reading boss Nigel Adkins was keen to point out the significance of their 95th-minute equaliser against high-flying Nottingham Forest on Wednesday, suggesting that it was a result which could breathe new life into their campaign.
Perhaps the FA Cup is an unwelcome distraction on the back of that deserved point, but Reading have an excellent record at Brighton and can advance to round three with victory here.
No side in the top 16 of the Sky Bet Championship has fewer home wins than the Seagulls, who needed an 89th-minute goal to avoid defeat against Bournemouth on New Year's Day, and while boss Oscar Garcia felt they deserved to win the fact is Brighton don't do so as often as they should at home.
Reading have lost their last couple away but a repeat of their display when losing by a goal at Leicester would see them hard to beat and, as touched upon, they've won their last four at Brighton and each with a clean sheet.
Before I hand over to Nick, 17/1 might be an odd price but it's also a very good one about Serge Gnabry opening the scoring when Arsenal host Tottenham.
Gnabry is very much on the fringes of Arsene Wenger's squad but he's held in high regard and has already demonstrated glimpses of his undoubted quality.
Indeed, many observers feel that he'll be a full German international at some stage in the next couple of years and in just two starts for the Gunners this season he's already opened the scoring once.
There's no doubt he's got an eye for goal and he's not afraid to have a go. "I have a good shot," he said. "I practise my shooting a lot and if the shot is on because of the opening and the keeper is positioned in a way where there is a chance, I am not afraid to shoot."
All this would apply every week but the reason for backing him now is that Arsenal look set to be without both Olivier Giroud and Nicklas Bendtner for Saturday night's game, and with Lukasz Podolski having struggled against Cardiff, their goal-scoring threat may come from elsewhere.
There has to be a good chance Gnabry will be given a start, especially if Wenger opts to play Theo Walcott through the middle, and if he doesn't then there's a good chance we'll have stakes refunded as it's hard to see this game lacking in chances.
Spurs aren't a bad price to win here on the back of their heroics at Old Trafford but they put a lot into that game and the early evidence of Tim Sherwood's tenure is that they will offer up chances. Perhaps Gnabry can take one of them.
Coventry will be relishing a return to Yorkshire after a 3-1 victory at Rotherham in League One on New Year's Day, writes Nick Hext.
Barnsley are the opponents for the Sky Blues on Saturday and Steven Pressley's men are a great shout at 21/10 to seal a spot in the fourth round with victory at Oakwell.
Coventry sit 10th in the third tier but would be fifth if it weren't for a 10-point deduction for going into administration and their away record is very strong.
They have only lost once on the road since September 21 and that should fill them with confidence for a clash against a Barnsley side sitting bottom of the Sky Bet Championship and struggling for form.
The Tykes are without a win in six games and it's also a six-match run since October 19 since their last home victory.
Coventry have nothing to fear from this match and should be backed.
- The games at Blackburn and Arsenal are being televised live in the UK on BT Sport and ITV respectively.