Local pride complicates picture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2003, 12:00am

When it comes to derbies - and there are plenty this weekend - a draw is probably the best option for punters

Local pride is at stake in London, Rome, Liverpool and Manchester this weekend as some of Europe's biggest derby clashes take centre stage. Derbies are notoriously unpredictable, which complicates an already difficult match list, and it would be no surprise to see a glut of draws.

First up is Arsenal versus Tottenham, live on TV tonight. Arsenal have little to fear from the derby factor, with only two defeats against fellow London teams in the past three seasons (28 matches), both against Charlton.

They have maintained that record this season, with a 2-1 home win over Chelsea and a 1-1 draw at in-form Charlton.

Spurs are just the opposite. They have picked up 28 points from a possible 84 in London derbies over the past three seasons (compared to Arsenal's 60) and this season have already suffered two heavy defeats (4-2 at Chelsea and 3-0 at home to Fulham).

More importantly, since Arsene Wenger took over at Arsenal, his team have been beaten only once by Spurs in 15 attempts. While there has been a high incidence of draws in that period, most (five out of seven) have been at Spurs and Arsenal have won the last five meetings at Highbury.

Spurs' results have improved under David Pleat (four wins and two draws from seven games), but most of those matches have been against lower-half or First Division opposition and their apparent revival remains untested against a side of Arsenal's quality. Last week's 1-0 home defeat by Bolton suggests they are not up to the task.

There is another London derby on TV tonight when Charlton host Fulham - not as glamorous as Arsenal v Tottenham but probably more competitive on this season's form.

As with many of this week's major fixtures, this could go either way but Charlton look a generous price for an in-form home team.

Tonight's other live derby match from England is Wolves versus Birmingham - their first clash in the top division for almost 20 years. Wolves are the bigger team by tradition but Birmingham are flying high this season and this should be an even contest. Wolves, after a decidedly shaky start, have improved, especially defensively, while Birmingham have one of the best defences in the country, so it might be a cagey affair. A draw looks likely.

Tomorrow's TV action kicks off with Liverpool versus Manchester United - not a derby in the traditional sense but as full-blooded and intense as any other local rivalry.

Historically, the dominant team in the league have fared least well in this fixture and Liverpool are attractively priced given their recent improvement and the continued absence of key United players such as Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Apart from the derbies, several Premiership games look tough to call. Aston Villa's good home record is counter-balanced by their lack of goals, while their opponents, Middlesbrough, appear more capable of scoring now but still have a poor away record to overcome. Boro's recent improvement in defence suggests they can shut out Villa, making them a reasonable proposition at the odds.

Portsmouth have a good home record and should beat Leeds, but they can hardly be regarded as a safe banker after five defeats in their last six Premiership matches.

Tomorrow's later live matches feature Manchester City versus Leicester City and Chelsea against Newcastle. The latter promises to be a cracker after both teams enjoyed high-scoring away wins at difficult venues in Europe, but Chelsea's better defence should give them the edge. Manchester City, despite their tendency to slip up in the easiest-looking games, should be banker material at home to Leicester.

Blackburn host Everton in the final live Premiership game early on Tuesday morning and again this is hard to call as both teams have been way below the standards set last season. Everton are a sporting away chance after their sparkling display against Chelsea last week.

The big game in Italy is Roma versus Lazio. Like Wenger in north London, Fabio Capello's arrival as Roma coach in 1999 appears to have caused a major shift in the balance of power in Rome. In 10 derbies under Capello, Roma have won six times and lost only once (in the previous 10, Roma had won only twice).

Lazio's confidence will be low after their 4-0 home defeat by Chelsea in the Champions League, though Roma also struggled in Europe, needing a last-minute goal for a 1-0 home win over Hadjuk Split in the UEFA Cup. Roma look back to their best after last season's problems and are an attractive price despite the derby factor.

Tomorrow's early live game from Italy features two more of the title contenders as Parma host AC Milan. Parma would have a better chance if star striker Adriano was available to lead the front line, but Milan's strong defence should be enough to earn them a point. It is difficult to fancy Milan for the win as they don't show enough attacking ambition in these big games - last week's home 1-1 with Juventus last week was a case in point, where the away team made most of the running.

The big games in Spain (Deportivo v Real Sociedad) and Germany (Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund) both feature teams with question marks over their championship credentials. Deportivo, who looked virtually unstoppable in Spain after wins over Valencia and Barcelona, are in mini-crisis following their midweek 8-3 humiliation at Monaco in the Champions League.

Sociedad, last season's runners-up, are struggling to reproduce that form domestically, despite moving to the brink of qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Sociedad's overall away form and their record at Deportivo tempers enthusiasm for them even at a big price.

Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the pre-season favourites for the Bundesliga, are in touch with the three leaders only because of their strong home records - Bayern have four wins from five, while Dortmund are six from six. Dortmund's away record is poor, which should give Bayern the opportunity to bounce back from their 2-1 home defeat by Lyon in the Champions League.

Better bets in Spain and Germany are revitalised Barcelona, at home to Real Betis, and Stuttgart, away at struggling Eintracht Frankfurt. Free-scoring Werder Bremen (limited to one goal in only one of their last 10 games against Bundesliga opposition, and that was against Stuttgart) look a good price for the win at Hannover. Werder have won four out of five away, while Hannover have picked up most of their points against struggling sides.

Kaiserslautern, who drew 0-0 with Bayer Leverkusen last week, are a slightly riskier away proposition at Hansa Rostock but have to be worth a shot against a team which has taken only two points from their last eight games.

Back in Italy, Brescia look overpriced for the visit of struggling Bologna. Only three Serie A teams have scored more goals at home than Brescia, even though they have faced teams with the quality of Parma, Inter and Chievo. Bologna have lost four out of four away, continuing a trend which has seen them take just 12 points from their last 25 away games.

Best homes: Arsenal, Brescia, Manchester City, Barcelona, Roma, Best aways: Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Kaiserslautern.

High goals: Hannover v Werder Bremen, Manchester City v Leicester, Barcelona v Real Betis.

Low goals: Wolves v Birmingham, Bolton v Southampton, Siena v Chievo.