Minnows deserve second look

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:00am

The odds on the top sides are so short that it's time to search for value among lesser clubs capable of springing upsets

Europe's big clubs are the main focus of the live TV action this weekend, but there are very short prices on offer despite some competitive-looking matches.

The big three in the English Premiership are priced at 1.65 or under on the Jockey Club list even though all three are away and, between them, have failed to land the odds in three out of six matches over the past two weekends - at even shorter odds. Of course, all three might win and many will want to bet on the all-up, but do Arsenal and Chelsea deserve to be such strong favourites at Bolton and Fulham, respectively, in tonight's TV double-header?

Bolton are one of the form teams in the Premiership and turned Chelsea over last weekend, so they must have good claims back on home territory, where their record was strong even before their recent dramatic improvement. That record includes April's hard-fought 2-2 draw with Arsenal, which effectively ended the Gunners' title challenge last season.

Arsenal's away record is exemplary but there has to be some doubt about their win chance against such in-form rivals because they have scored only two goals in their last three Premiership matches and their record against top-half sides this season is won three, drawn three.

Fourth-placed Fulham are hardly ideal rivals for Chelsea, whose stuttering form has been undone twice in the past week, first by Bolton and then at Aston Villa in the Carling Cup. Fulham's form has dipped a little but their 3-1 win at Manchester United and 0-0 at Arsenal proved they can handle the big occasion and this is their first home crack at one of the title contenders. In addition, it's a west London derby and the five games between the two clubs since Fulham's elevation to the Premiership have produced three draws, including in both league fixtures last season (0-0 at Fulham and 1-1 at Stamford Bridge), and two single-goal wins for Chelsea.

Like Arsenal, Chelsea have failed to turn long periods of domination into goals in recent weeks and handicap punters should note that they would have covered a theoretical -1 handicap in only three of their 16 Premiership matches this season (Arsenal have done it four times, while Manchester United have been the most reliable with seven - their success rate is much higher for matches which would have had handicap terms, at seven out of 12).

United are marginally the shortest price of the big three, for their game at Spurs tomorrow night, and rightly so as they are the most in-form side and look a solid option. Nevertheless, there has to be some doubt about their win chance too because they have won only twice in their past six visits to White Hart Lane and one of those was the famous comeback to win 5-3 after being 3-0 down at half-time. That is hardly a record which suggests Spurs are no-hopers on their own ground, where they have performed pretty well since David Pleat took charge.

Punters may have a problem finding solid alternatives to the big three on this weekend's Premiership programme. There are plenty of doubts on both sides for most of tonight's other clashes - Birmingham v Middlesbrough, Blackburn v Aston Villa, Everton v Leicester and Wolves v Liverpool. Newcastle look a decent price away at Charlton, who are a real streak team (their points tally from each five-game run in their last 50 Premiership games is 4, 4, 13, 6, 15, 1, 3, 5, 13, 5) and whose manager, Alan Curbishley, raised doubts about their current form last weekend. Liverpool might just fit the bill for an away bet at Wolves as their disappointing form has undoubtedly been over-emphasised simply because they are a big name.

Southampton look a solid home bet against south-coast rivals Portsmouth in tomorrow's early TV game but are barely a longer price than the Premiership's big three, while Manchester City v Leeds is another game that is hard to call with any confidence.

Germany's Bundesliga has started its winter break, which leaves only Spain and Italy to find some solid bets to pay for the Christmas presents. The top three in Italy should justify short odds, with Roma and Juventus away to teams in the relegation zone, Empoli and Lecce respectively. AC Milan are the shortest price of the trio but may have the hardest task to land the odds at home to seventh-placed Udinese, mainly because the European Cup holders are such a low-scoring side that it cannot be taken for granted that they will stamp their superiority over capable opponents.

The best bet on Italy's big three is Roma to cover the -1 handicap at Empoli, with the odds not much shorter than an all-up on all three teams.

There are some doubts about the top three in Spain - principally third-placed Deportivo, who are only 14th out of the 20 La Liga teams on form in the past eight games, having won just twice in that period. They have a seemingly easy task this weekend, however, at home to bottom club Espanyol. Valencia's attack lacks a top marksman and they will be relying on their strong defence to see them through at home to dangerous Sevilla, while leaders Real Madrid face a tricky trip to Mallorca, where they have already lost in the Super Cup this season.

Other Spanish teams with good chances are Atletico Madrid, Osasuna and Barcelona, all at home but again short prices on a betting list which lacks any significant value wagers this week.

A tempting option at a longer price are Malaga, away to second-bottom Murcia. Malaga are the seventh-best team in Spain over the past eight games, but that may underestimate their improvement because six of those matches have come against top-half teams. Their away record (two wins from eight) looks poor but is open to improvement because they have played four of the best five home teams in the league already - they have two wins and two defeats away to teams in the bottom half, which suggests they are a good price at draw specialists Murcia.

Best homes: Atletico Madrid, Southampton, Sampdoria, Barcelona, Osasuna.

Best aways: Newcastle, Roma, Malaga.

High goals: Charlton v Newcastle, Barcelona v Celta Vigo, Spurs v Manchester United.

Low goals: Birmingham v Middlesbrough, AC Milan v Udinese, Real Sociedad v Valladolid.