The line-up for the fifth round of the FA Cup will be completed this evening as Middlesbrough and Sunderland lock horns for the one remaining spot in the last 16.
Martin O’Neill’s men were heavily fancied to see off their north-east rivals in the first meeting between the sides at the Stadium of Light, but Boro managed to secure a replay with a 1-1 draw.
However, considering their recent woes, it is difficult to make a case for the Teessiders going one better tonight against the in-form Premier League side, even with home advantage.
Their win over Shrewsbury Town in the third round is their only victory in their last eight outings in all competitions and they are slipping off the automatic promotion pace in the Championship.
In fairness, Boro have only lost two of their last 19 home fixtures in the FA Cup, winning 13 of them – but then again, they have mustered just two wins in their last 14 clashes with Premier League teams in this competition.
Tony Mowbray’s troops have managed a meagre 15 goals in 15 league matches at the Riverside this term, with only Crystal Palace and struggling trio Bristol City, Doncaster Rovers and Nottingham Forest scoring fewer.
With top scorer Scott McDonald definitely out and doubts over the fitness of fellow striker Marvin Emnes, it is hard to see how Boro are going to cause major worries for a Sunderland backline which is statistically the joint third-best in the top flight.
O’Neill is clearly taking this competition seriously as he knows how much it would mean to fans of the Wearsiders if he can deliver their first major trophy since 1973.
The Black Cats have injury worries too, with skipper Lee Cattermole, Nicklas Bendtner, Wes Brown, David Vaughan, Matt Killgallon and Titus Bramble all set to miss out and loan signings Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos both ineligible.
But I’m still leaning towards Sunderland, not least because O’Neill fielded his strongest line-up in the first meeting between the sides and should follow suit this evening.
The former Aston Villa boss is clearly taking this competition seriously as he knows how much it would mean to fans of the Wearsiders if he can deliver their first major trophy since 1973.
Sunderland have been installed as 19/20 favourites to win inside 90 minutes in bwin’s 3Way football betting market, with Boro priced at 29/10 and a draw available at odds of 23/10.
It should be noted that Boro have drawn an amazing eight home matches in the Championship already this term, a total matched only by Liverpool and Palace in England’s top four divisions.
So the need for extra-time would not be surprising, as Boro have one of the better defensive records in the second tier and certainly won’t roll over, especially with their fans baying for Sunderland blood.
With that in mind, punters looking for a safe play in this one should settle for the 1/2 which says the Black Cats will seal a home tie against Arsenal by any means required.
But there is also value to be found elsewhere and I’m particularly keen on Sunderland to win a game of under 3.5 goals inside 90 minutes, which looks like an absolute steal at odds of 8/5.
Considering the respective attacking injury concerns of both teams, it would be a major surprise to see a goalfest at the Riverside, but this bet even covers you for a 2-1 or 3-0 win for the visitors.
On top of that, 12 of Boro’s 15 matches in front of their own fans in the league this season have contained less than four goals, while ten of Sunderland’s 12 fixtures on the road have also fitted this criterion.
New customers receive a free £25 bet for joining bwin.com and placing it on Sunderland to triumph in a game featuring three goals or fewer would bring returns of £65 if successful.
A braver punt along the same lines would be for O’Neill’s men to win either 1-0 or 2-0, which is available at a longer price of 16/5, while they are at 11/5 to win without conceding.
As a final thought, it is worth noting that Sunderland have the fourth-best second-half away record in the Premier League, while only three teams have fared worse at home after the interval than Boro in the Championship.
Sunderland to win the second half looks decent at 13/10, then, with draw/Sunderland in the half-time/full-time market providing a reasonable alternative punt at 4/1 for anyone seeking longer odds.
But there’s really no need to look much further than the Black Cats to get the win in a game featuring less than four goals, which, in this writer’s humble opinion, is a five-star bet of the highest order.
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