Port Vale v Sunderland
Live on BT Sport
Black Cats would benefit from a Cup run
Former Sunderland manager Malcolm Crosby made a lot of good points this week, about managers liking an FA Cup run: it brings confidence and money. In Sunderland's case it would also make a statement that the Black Cats are not to be forgotten by the Championship and Premier League, just because they have fallen into League One.
He hangs his hopes this year on 1992, when Sunderland reached the final (but started in round three), after beating the Valiants in their first match that year.
He thinks Sunderland will do well in the league this season, having picked out Chris Maguire and Josh Maja as players who make things happen. There's no doubt that boss Jack Ross has his side primed for a promotion push. They have now climbed snugly into second spot.
Port Vale remain a work in progress under Neil Aspin, who took the reins 13 months ago when they were bottom of the Football League. As soon as they put on a few good results, one thinks they might kick on to League Two greatness, but it doesn't seem to happen. A cup run would definitely suit the manager, to boost the coffers for a promotion push - next season.
They beat Oxford United at home last year, but then couldn't get past Yeovil in round two. Their League Cup game in August was an inauspicious 4-0 defeat to Lincoln. They were also pummelled 6-2 in League Two a few weeks ago by the same opposition. Since they, they have won twice and drawn twice, with three clean sheets.
The chances on an away win of 1.84/5 in the match odds market are about right, but too short for me to get involved, with Port Vale 5.49/2 and the draw - probably Vale's best chance of a result - 4.03/1.
Port Vale praying on Pope's goals
There's one big thorn in the theory that this could be one-sided - Tom Pope. If the 33-year-old is on song, the hosts can have hope of a victory. He's bagged seven this season and all but one his 19 last season came after Aspin's appointment last autumn. He's always been highly rated but perhaps hasn't always lived up to that billing, although his career stats show a healthy 0.27 goals per game average.
Luke Hannant (3) and Ben Whitfield (2) really need to have bigger support act numbers, though, if the Valiants are truly going to test the visiting defence.
In a run of six wins and two draws, Sunderland have learned to keep clean sheets and haven't now conceded in the best part of 400 minutes of play.
A settled back four of Jack Baldwin, Tom Flanagan, Reece James and Adam Matthews, supported by Jon McLaughlan behind them and Lee Cattermole in front of them, might have a lot to do with five straight wins, even if the latter misses out for a second game running with injury. Max Power is likely to return, however.
It is strange to read of Sunderland's "improved form" when they sit second, which just shows the level of expectation on the North East club, who have lost twice and, before their unbeaten eight-game run, drawn three.
The visitors might just be caught napping at some point, which is why I'm going for the over 3.5 goals price @ 3.211/5
Back the goal fest
There's no reason why Ross won't put out a strong line-up for Sunderland's first FA Cup First Round match in 31 years (say Opta). League One and Two sides have blank Saturdays for the first and second round, so where's the "distraction", from the main aim of promotion, by progressing at least one round and earning some money in the process?
That being the case, Vale's defence might struggle to cope with Josh Maja's goal threat. He's a strong candidate for first goalscorer at 5.59/2, jointly with Pope in my opinion who is likely to be a bit longer at 6.511/2. The striker has nine in the league this season and Chris Maguire is in hot pursuit with five from midfield. The hosts might have reached the second round in 13 of the past 15 seasons, say Opta, but this is a tall order.
Valiants keeper Scott Brown, and centre-back Connell Rawlinson, might have a far busier day than they've had recently. Before Saturday's 2-2 draw with Notts County, they managed three clean sheets in a row.
In the correct score market, backing Sunderland to win 3-1 @ 12.011/1 appeals.
Such is Sunderland's strength in depth there is already talk of which players they will move on in January. Commentators on the Valiants simply don't have that luxury. The visitors should be too strong if they make minimal changes. Let's not forget they won't want to embarrass themselves in front of live TV cameras.