Liverpool look to turn the tide
But a draw is the choice bet as Houllier's injury-hit squad look for a first win in seven matches against depleted Arsenal
The weekend action opens with a TV cracker tonight as Liverpool host Arsenal in a fixture usually packed with excitement.
The outcome is likely to hinge on which team copes best with the long-term injury problems suffered in some bruising encounters recently - Arsenal are missing Patrick Vieira and Freddie Ljungberg from their first-choice line-up, while Dietmar Hamann, Danny Murphy and Jamie Carragher are out for Liverpool.
The two giants have shared an even split of four draws and four wins apiece in the 12 meetings since Gerard Houllier took sole charge at Liverpool, but it is interesting to note that Liverpool's traditional dominance has waned in that period. In the 12 meetings before Houllier's appointment, Liverpool had won nine and drawn two, and it is only since Houllier became his opposite number that Arsene Wenger has begun to reverse the tide of history in this fixture.
Arsenal have not lost in their last six clashes with Liverpool and would have won at Anfield for the second successive season but for a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw last January.
The statistics back up the belief that Houllier's tactics are too negative and have stifled Liverpool's traditional forward play, while Wenger has perfected the art of the counter-attacking away game. That makes Arsenal a more attractive win bet, but, with doubts about both teams' ability to hit top form without key players, it looks sensible to bet on a fourth draw in their last six meetings.
Manchester United feature again in the late live game and are likely to be given a searching test by unbeaten Birmingham, who have the meanest defence in the Premiership with just two goals conceded. United have faltered against similarly strong defences with losses at Stuttgart and Southampton, but the difference here is that Birmingham offer less of a threat going forward and United have shown much better form at home this season. They should win, but it won't be easy.
Southampton, with only four goals conceded, do not look ideal opponents for winless Newcastle in the other late TV game, but in fact Southampton's away record is not as impressive as it looks. Their three away games so far have been against teams currently in the bottom five and, apart from that, in 2003 they have taken just four away points against sides of at least mid-table calibre.
It is possible that Southampton have improved again this season, but Newcastle's forward play looked better in last week's 3-2 defeat at Arsenal and they are fancied to break their duck.
Charlton are another team with a poor away record (three wins in their last 13 games, against last season's bottom two and this season at current bottom club Wolves) and, despite last week's 3-2 home win over Liverpool, they look unlikely to get anything from their visit to Portsmouth. The hosts have lost only to Blackburn (one of the Premiership's best away sides) at home this season and are a decent price to return to winning ways after two straight defeats.
Aston Villa are always an attractive home bet against average opposition and should win tomorrow's live match against Bolton, whose away game plan is to go for a goalless draw. They have succeeded in three of their last five away league games and have conceded more than one goal away on just two occasions since their 2-0 defeat at Villa on January 1, so a low-scoring encounter looks likely.
Tomorrow's other live game features Middlesbrough at home to Chelsea, who have justified banker status for the past three weekends but are not the safest bet this time. Boro are strong at home and Chelsea can't afford the tinkering or lack of concentration which has afflicted some of their displays, particularly at home. On the plus side, Chelsea have a good recent record against Boro, who have defensive worries and lack a consistent goalscorer.
The highlight of the weekend in Spain is tomorrow's live clash between Barcelona and Valencia. Their last 10 meetings have averaged 3.7 goals a game, and the last eight games at the Nou Camp have brought totals of 6, 4, 5, 3, 3, 6, 7 and 5, so excitement looks guaranteed. Valencia should have the edge, given their fine defensive record and Barcelona's shaky home form.
A more solid bet in Spain is Real Betis, who host Athletic Bilbao in one of tonight's live games. Betis have not hit top form yet, but they are a possible top-six side and have lost only at Real Madrid this season.
Their home record, coupled with Bilbao's consistently poor displays on the road, makes them an attractive proposition.
Two of the Italian giants are also involved in a live TV clash tomorrow as Internazionale take on AC Milan in the San Siro, their shared home. The odds compilers can't separate the city rivals, which is not surprising as victory has gone to the nominal home team only four times in the past decade (24 matches), with an even split of two home and five away wins for each team.
In those same 24 matches, more than one goal has separated them on only four occasions, and the last five meetings, including last season's Champions League semi-final, have averaged just one goal per game. Ten of the 24 games have been draws (more than double the normal incidence), which makes another stalemate the best bet.
Of the other big teams in Italy, Lazio look most vulnerable at home to Chievo, who have a decent away record and are a big price to take advantage of the Rome side's recent stumbling form. Roma's best form would be enough to win at Siena, but the promoted side are unlikely to be a pushover.
The best value could be Udinese at Ancona, who reacted to their bad start by changing manager this week. Udinese's away form is not great but they played well against Inter last week, despite being unable to break the deadlock against 10 men, and should be good enough to beat the bottom club.
The top four in the German Bundesliga all look probable home winners at short odds and a value shot is Freiburg at home to 1860 Munich. Freiburg have proved strong at home, with two wins and a draw from three matches, and looked unlucky to lose 1-0 at Dortmund last week. 1860's away form last season was the seventh-best in the Bundesliga, but it fell away towards the end of last season and they don't score enough to be a consistent threat on the road.
Best homes: Freiburg, Portsmouth, Real Betis, Parma, Aston Villa.
Best aways: Manchester City, Udinese, Valencia. High goals: Portsmouth v Charlton, Spurs v Everton, Barcelona v Valencia.
Low goals: Middlesbrough v Chelsea, Aston Villa v Bolton, Inter Milan v AC Milan.