Manchester United v Middlesbrough (Friday, 20:00) – Boro to fluff their lines
An upset would be fancied in the Friday night clash if it wasn’t for Boro’s wastefulness in front of goal this season.
Even though Andraz Sporar is worth keeping an eye on, scoring four in six, all told the visitors boast an underwhelming 7.1% goals-to-shots ratio in the Championship and frankly we’ve been burned too many times now backing sides who squander an array of opportunities, courtesy of a generous United back-line, only to be undone.
Furthermore, the Red Devils have a number of players returning, giving Ralf Rangnick options for a change, and they have Ronaldo of course. Only Mo Salah has taken on more shots in the top-flight and the megastar’s tally is especially impressive given he has only played 73% of his club’s minutes.
United have scored 69% of their goals this term in the second period, 11 of which have arrived beyond the 80th minute mark. That’s where the value lies for this one.
Chelsea v Plymouth (Saturday, 12:30) – Pilgrims on the spot
The Pilgrims’ promotion charge has hit the rocks since Ryan Lowe’s departure. At the back they are conceding more – 1.6 per game under new boss Steven Schumacher compared to 1.1 under Lowe – and this must frustrate because at the other end they remain prolific, converting six in their last two league games.
It’s a surprise to discover no player has yet to reach double figures because only three teams have outscored them in League One.
Can they pull off a seismic shock at the Bridge to resurrect their campaign in the lunchtime kick-off?
They’ll need a perfect storm for sure against a side that have easily progressed past the 15 previous FA Cup opponents they’ve faced beyond the Premier League. Chelsea conceded only four times in those fixtures.
Even if Plymouth’s defence keeps out Lukaku and co in open play there is always a spot-kick to be fearful of. The Blues have been awarded seven penalties in the league, all scored, with another four for good measure in other competitions.
Crystal Palace v Hartlepool (Saturday, 15:00) – Eagles flying low
Palace have been breached eight times in their last three home games but have Wilfried Zaha back from AFCON and with Conor Gallagher in excellent form should routinely beat a side 72 places below them in the footballing pyramid. Just don’t expect a goal-fest.
The Monkey Hangers are turning a corner under new boss Graeme Lee, drawing five of their last seven, four of them goalless stalemates.
The League Two strugglers may be lacking up front, with the fifth lowest return in the division, but they’re difficult to break down.
Stoke v Wigan (Saturday, 15:00) – An upset that is not an upset
Contrasting fortunes renders the league gap between these sides largely irrelevant.
Stoke have won only two of their last ten in the Championship and only Bournemouth and Birmingham have accrued fewer points after going behind.
The Latics meanwhile are flying, unbeaten in 20 across every competition and firmly in contention to go up come May.
It is crucial for the visitors that their goal-machine Will Keane features following a hamstring strain. Wigan boss Leam Richardson has cast serious doubts on his chances but a player who boasts a league-high conversion rate of 30%, with 0.58 goals per 90, is being assessed daily. It’s worth noting too that the 2013 cup winners have kept only two clean sheets across their 12-game unbeaten league spell.
Manchester City v Fulham (Saturday, 15:00) – City to gain early control
The runaway leaders of the Premier League and Championship meet up at the Etihad this Saturday and considering how many goals they’ve scored between them it’s an odd omission from the telly roster.
To illustrate their attacking intent, City are averaging a remarkable 24 shots per league game while the Cottagers run them close with 2.2 shots less. Combined they have lost just 11% of their league commitments.
Fulham will surely smash the 100-mark for goals this term, especially with Aleksandar Mitrovic in their ranks. The deadly Serb has fired 28 in 26, equating to a strike every 81 minutes.
Yet, the key aspect to this clash lies with City taking the lead on 22 occasions this term and winning each time. Typically, Guardiola’s men score early then it’s all about control and suffocation. Pass, pass, pass.
The Blues have notched 18 times inside 25 minutes across 2021/22.
Wolves v Norwich (Saturday, 15:00) – Canaries return to earth
Are the Canaries on an upturn after putting together back-to-back wins? The stats from those games suggests not with no notable improvement from previous defeats aside from the rather important detail of sticking the ball in back of the net.
So, were Norwich just uncharacteristically clinical in beating Everton and Watford, two opponents who sacked their managers soon after? It’s telling that Dean Smith’s side managed two shots on target at Vicarage Road and came away with a 3-0 win thanks to an own goal.
We will know infinitely more on Saturday afternoon because very few teams better test attacking ingenuity than Wolves. In the league they’ve conceded a goal every 118 minutes, and even if their sustained parsimony is undermined by being shot-shy up front it’s difficult to see Norwich getting much joy at Molineux.
Nottingham Forest v Leicester (Sunday, 16:00) – All saints in the Midlands
Last season’s fourth round pitted ten sides against opponents a league or more higher. All of them lost. Was that because of the absence of fans? Or are superior squad depths more important than ever?
The latter is certainly not a factor here, not with Leicester’s injury woes that sees Brendan Rodgers deprived of his first-choice back four along with Timonthy Castagne and, crucially Jamie Vardy. The Foxes do welcome back Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi from AFCON duties but still, theirs is a campaign to date made up of enforced changes and unpredictability.
As for Forest, things were ticking along just grand in 2022 until they meekly surrendered to Cardiff last week. Was it merely a bad day at the office? We’ll see.
This is a tricky one to call so let’s look elsewhere, namely at goals and bookings.
The last ten games featuring the Foxes have produced 45 goals so a blank is unlikely. On the disciplinary front meanwhile, Leicester are positively angelic while Forest are hardly the bad-boys of the Championship. The line is relatively high as it’s a derby clash so we can get a decent price on fewer than five cards.