New bet provides a tough test
Who will score first in the Manchester United-Chelsea game? Now you can back up your answer with hard cash
The big game of the weekend is Chelsea at home to Manchester United tomorrow night, which may provide the biggest clue yet about the destination of this season's Premiership title.
The top side in the mini-table of results between the big five (United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle) has also topped the overall table in the past two seasons and, while that is not always the case, the outcome of games between the big teams could play a crucial role this season given the manner in which United, Chelsea and Arsenal have dominated the rest of the league.
Chelsea have been the big losers among the top three so far this season, their 2-1 defeat at Arsenal restricting them to six points from a possible nine against the big five, while Arsenal have 10 from 12 and United seven from nine. That puts the onus on Chelsea to make the most of home advantage against United and they could hardly be in better form after a run of seven wins and a draw (0-0 at home to Sparta Prague in their midweek Champions League game) since the Arsenal game.
United are also flying with six straight wins since their 3-1 home defeat to Fulham but this is a game that will test the strength of their squad more thoroughly in the absence of Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. If Roy Keane is ruled out, that should tip the balance towards Chelsea, whose sound defence (only one goal conceded in their last seven games in the Premiership and Europe) has been as important to their success as all those big-money signings.
The Chelsea-Manchester United game is also significant as the launch match for first goalscorer betting with the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The list of players offered for the bet and their odds will be announced today, while each player will be allocated a code to be used for filling tickets, with the codes confirmed before betting commences at 9am tomorrow.
'First scorer bets will only be accepted on the day of the match to minimise the possibility of customers betting on players who are not included in the final squad,' said a Club spokesman. If a selected player does not take part in the match or joins the match only after the first goal has been scored (excluding own goals), bets on that player will be refunded.
Ruud van Nistelrooy, Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu are almost certain starters and are likely to dominate the market, but first goalscorer betting is notoriously difficult - Chelsea, for instance, have opened the scoring eight times in the Premiership this season, through seven different players. The value for Chelsea would be Frank Lampard, who is a very attacking midfield player, though punters who fancy a Chelsea win and are looking for a different type of bet might consider Chelsea to win at half-time and full-time as they have scored in the first half of every home league match this season.
Arsenal also feature in live action tomorrow at home to Fulham and they should continue their great record in London derbies (two home wins and an away draw so far this season, adding to a record of just five league defeats in London in the past six seasons (a total of 56 games).
Today's live action starts with Wolves at home to Newcastle, who look one of the better away bets of the weekend. Newcastle have crept up steadily to seventh place and their record this season is better than it looks at first glance - all four league defeats have been against teams who currently lie above them in the table. That suggests Wolves pose little threat for the win, while Newcastle's creative midfield should provide plenty of chances as usual.
Confidence is tempered slightly by Newcastle's occasional inability to take advantage of their superior quality (they have drawn four out of six against lower-half opposition), but it is hard to find a better away bet in the Premiership. Middlesbrough (at Manchester City tomorrow) are one away team to consider at a bigger price, but up-and-down City could easily bounce back to form and outscore them.
Real Madrid have looked vulnerable away this season in La Liga, but they would account for Osasuna easily if they could come anywhere near their Champions League form. They look too good to miss on the handicap (2.95, giving up one goal) and so have to go down as one of the banker away bets, even at the short odds.
Home bankers are easier to find with plenty of in-form sides to choose from. The most obvious include Charlton in England, Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, and AC Milan and Roma in Italy, but even the handicap odds are uninviting on all bar Charlton, who should be able to give up one goal to Leeds at odds of 2.45.
Bolton are a good price for the win in another of tonight's live Premiership games, when they match their sound home record against Everton's shaky away form. There is a similar scenario for Portsmouth at home to Leicester, though punters will have to go odds-on for Portsmouth.
Juventus look a home banker in Italy, even though they host fourth-placed Inter Milan, but the Jockey Club's odds compilers have taken no risks with the price. Parma, whose home record in all competitions is five wins and two draws (16 goals for, just one against), are also banker material, even though they face tough opponents in Chievo.
The best home bet in Spain is Athletic Bilbao, who have won five straight home games since their opening-day defeat against Barcelona and can get the better of Racing Santander in the Basque derby. Racing have a good away record (including wins at Valencia and Celta Vigo) but have enjoyed a certain amount of luck on their travels and may need more than that at a venue where they have suffered six defeats in eight visits since their last win 10 years ago.
The midweek action centres on the fourth round of the League Cup in England and another programme of league games in Spain.
The south-coast derby between Southampton and Portsmouth is a good choice for the TV match in the early hours of Wednesday morning as it should be a spiky affair between two teams who are likely to put out full-strength sides in a bid for some cup glory. Perhaps a cup run could spark something for Southampton, as it did last season, and they might have the edge over their bitter rivals, who have scored only two goals and conceded 12 in seven away league games.
Division One leaders West Brom host Manchester United in the live game early on Thursday morning, having knocked out Newcastle away in the third round, but betting interest is limited given the likelihood of a second-string United line-up.
Chief interest in Spain revolves around the Madrid derby, also live in the early hours of Thursday morning. Atletico have a win and two draws from their last four visits to Real's Bernabeu fortress and their good recent form should make this another interesting encounter.
Best homes: Bolton, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Parma, Bilbao.
Best aways: Newcastle, Real Madrid.
High goals: Hamburg v Werder Bremen, Portsmouth v Leicester, Bilbao v Santander.
Low goals: Aston Villa v Southampton, Siena v Lazio, Murcia v Real Sociedad.