Of the three all-Premier League clashes in the FA Cup third round this weekend it is Wolves’ hosting of Crystal Palace that is hardest to pin down and make sense of.
The form of both sides has been erratic in the league to say the least, with impressive results swiftly followed by crashing disappointments. Neither team have managed to string more than two wins together. Neither team have lost more than two on the bounce.
Add in that Nuno Espirito Santo and Roy Hodgson will each likely make sweeping changes to their starting 11 and this one is as unpredictable as they come. Literally, anything could happen: four words that perfectly sum up this season.
All of which leads me to believe that the 3/1 available for a Palace win is the one to plump for. Because only goal difference separates them in the league and because Friday night’s encounter at Molineux amounts to a coin-flip. Sometimes the maths really is as straightforward as that.
Reds and Gunners must be fancied
Speaking of straightforward, Arsenal take on an uninspired Newcastle, who have created seven fewer big chances this season than Sheffield United, on Saturday. Twenty-four prior to that, meanwhile, Liverpool travel to Aston Villa.
It’s hardly surprising that Arsenal and Liverpool are firm favourites for their respective games. The Gunners have finally emerged from a prolonged period of self-doubt and look transformed. If their 3-1 victory over Chelsea put life back into their bones, last Saturday’s ruthless demolition of West Brom revealed that Mikel Arteta’s creation has some swagger attached when things are going well. And things are going very well now.
As for Liverpool, frankly they’re Liverpool aren’t they. Of course, the Reds are evens to prevail at Villa Park because even when factoring in their recent worrying blips this is a team that has blitzed English football into submission. Typically, you underestimate Jurgen Klopp’s men at your peril.
Furthermore, both Arteta and Klopp have the luxury of fielding extremely talented kids instead of disgruntled squad fillers in an early round of a competition where it’s commonplace for Premier League gaffers to rest key men.
For Arsenal this is a huge boon and it could even be argued that when the likes of Maitland-Niles, Willock, Nelson and Nketiah are involved the Gunners look all the better. Indeed, a defining narrative of their season so far is that in the Europa League, Arteta’s side has been fluid and entertaining, full of confidence. When the Spaniard has turned to his more established names in the league however – including a mis-firing Aubameyang with just two goals from open play all term – the performances have gone awry.
It is not a coincidence that the Gunners’ recent recovery has heavily featured Martinelli, Smith-Rowe and the increasingly impactful Saka and with the youngsters set to feature again here there is little value in the 1/2 for a home win. The 6/5 for Arsenal to win half-time/full-time is tempting while Alexandre Lacazette is worth backing to score given he has found the net four times in his last three games.
Weakening a side in need of strength
For Liverpool, is it advantageous to throw so many kids into the fray, something that Klopp will almost certainly do considering his track record of drastically shuffling his pack for domestic cup competitions?
The doubt is no reflection on the quality of Liverpool’s youth. Between them Neco Williams, Rhys Williams, Nathaniel Phillips and Curtis Jones have 65 first team appearances, with the latter’s outstanding displays this season leading to calls for an England promotion. In the third round last year, Everton were out-played by a baby-faced Liverpool side that contained three teens and three debutants. The Melwood academy is churning out some fine prospects.
That day, however, Liverpool faced an abject Everton while this Friday evening, in the Midlands, an inexperienced collective will surely face a very different calibre of opposition.
Liverpool are not firing on all cylinders at present. They have failed to score in 258 minutes while two points from a possible nine represents a crisis by their standards. So with all eyes on them is this really the time for Klopp to field a severely weakened side? Such is his distaste for our winter scheduling – he previously called it a ‘crime’ – the feeling is that he might.
Villans are the real deal
That could be a big mistake when you consider how impressive Villa have been since fighting off relegation in July. Flying high in eighth Dean Smith’s men boast the league’s form player in Jack Grealish who has created more chances than anyone else – 51 – this season. They also have the second meanest defence and all told they’ve been vibrant and unified and can justifiably lay claim to being the surprise package of the year. There is also the small matter of a 7-2 win back in October.