Stoke could prove tough nut to crack at Britannia


ARSENAL did readers of this column a favour with their 2-0 win against Bolton at the Reebok last Sunday. It was a fairly comfortable victory for the Gunners, but they had to fight to come from two behind against the same opposition at the Emirates on Wednesday night. That victory put Arsene Wenger’s side on top of the league, but their inconsistency has to be a concern and they could be set for a real test against Stoke on Sunday.

The Britannia Stadium has become something of a fortress for Stoke since they were promoted to the top flight. In 30 Premier League home games they have only lost 23 per cent (7/30) and won 50 per cent, including the only time they’ve ever played Arsenal here last season. The crowd acts as an extra man for Tony Pulis’ side and with Wenger regularly opting to play his kids in Cup games, the cauldron that is the Britannia could prove too much for them.

It isn’t really a surprise that the bookmakers make the Gunners odds-on favourites for this game, but with Stoke’s strong record at home, plus how well host teams do in all Premier League fourth round ties, that doesn’t look good value to me. In the past eight seasons there have been 29 all Premier League fourth round ties and only three have been won by the away side with the home team winning 17 (59 per cent).

Now, on their day Arsenal are a match for anyone, but whether Wenger really is focusing on the FA Cup this season is debatable. The league and Champions League are the priorities and with a big injury list the best trade for me is to lay them on Betdaq at around 20/21. The 4/1 about Stoke pre-game is also slightly tempting, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see this go to a replay so I’d advise getting with Stoke with a one-goal start at a general 11/10.

Spread betting punters may be interested in Sporting Index’s total bookings market as the last two games between these sides – both at the Emirates – have produced only one yellow card. However, an FA Cup atmosphere can change things and those looking to buy at 42 will be interested to hear that there were a total of six yellows and a red in last season’s meeting in the Potteries. Martin Atkinson is the man in charge for this one and his average this season is just over 40 points.
Lay Arsenal at 20/21 on Betdaq
Stoke to win with a one-goal start at 11/10 general


Everton have been much improved in recent weeks after a dodgy start to the season and they were very good against Manchester City last weekend. They haven’t lost a game in the league since November and have picked up a point at both Stamford Bridge and the Emirates during that time.

When David Moyes’ side hit form they are normally worth following, although he has another in-form Scottish manager to contend with tomorrow in Alex McLeish and his Birmingham side.

It will be a surprise to many that Blues are eighth in the table and in with a chance of earning a European place. However, they are there on merit and haven’t lost for longer than the Toffees – a run that now extends to 14 games. All looks set for a tight contest, but Everton have home advantage and we’ve already seen how important that can be at this stage of the competition. They are historically a strong FA Cup side and of course made it all the way to the final last year.

This is the first time Birmingham have made it past the third round in three years and their away FA Cup record from previous spells in the top flight is not strong against any opposition. In eight away games they have only managed to win one on the road and two of their three losses have come against fellow Premier League sides.

I have been impressed with Everton recently; they easily beat City on Saturday and were very unlucky not to beat Arsenal in North London the previous week. I don’t think it will be comprehensive, but I’d side with the Toffees at 20/23 with Boylesports in the outright market.

The key to Birmingham’s success has been a tight defence – they haven’t conceded more than one goal in their last eight games. For that reason, I’d be tempted to sell total match goals at 2.3 with Sporting Index.
Everton to win at 20/23 with Boylesports
Everton to win 1-0 at 6/1 on Betfair
Sell total goals at 2.3 with Sporting Index

Places in the quarter-finals are up for grabs as the final pool matches take place this weekend. Current champions Leinster are virtually certain to top Pool 6, but the Exiles will be going all out for victory at Twickenham to ensure a last-eight spot as one of the two best runners-up.

Having beaten Leinster 12-9 at the RDS back in October, there are circumstances in which Irish could top the pool but they must win by more than seven points and score at least four tries – unlikely against Brian O’Driscoll and co.

Leinster have publicly said they will strive to win the game, despite only requiring damage limitation tactics. However, with knowledge of Irish’s counter-attacking capabilities, I would be sceptical if the visitors were to push for tries on too many occasions, at the expense of leaving potential opportunities for the Exiles’ dangerous backs.

We also have to factor in the ‘big game’ issue. With a squad that includes experienced heads like O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and captain Leo Cullen there are few teams better equipped for such a situation than Leinster. On the other hand, Irish took their eyes off the ball as they saw a 12-point advantage turn into a 31-22 defeat against the Scarlets last week – possibly as the exciting prospect of a Pool 6 decider crept into the players’ minds a little prematurely. The choice of referee is also significant, as Welshman Nigel Owens was in charge of every one of Leinster’s victorious Heineken knockout games last year.

Irish have been given a two point start on the handicap with Boylesports and, all things considered, we should expect this to be overcome by a strong Leinster side who will be striving not only for the best possible quarter-final draw but also to avenge their early season defeat.

Despite a clear forecast for Saturday evening and the necessity of at least four tries for Irish, a sell of total match points at 40 with Sporting Index also looks a good bet. As mentioned, the champions are unlikely to leave too many gaps and frequent mistakes could easily be the undesired result of the high stakes.

Leinster to win with 2 point handicap
at 10/11 with Boylesports
Sell points at 40 with Sporting Index