Why United top the standings
The champions have a 60 per cent strike rate against in-form teams, while their Premiership rivals haven't fared as well
The English Premiership was a tight three-horse race a month ago but now Manchester United have raised the gallop at the front, leaving Arsenal and Chelsea struggling to keep up. This is another crunch weekend, with United and Arsenal hosting Newcastle and Middlesbrough respectively, while Chelsea travel to Leicester.
One key reason for United's gap at the top is that they have dropped points only to in-form rivals this season. Arsenal and Chelsea are two of the four teams to take points from United, but the top three are so closely matched that no team could expect to come away unscathed from the big clashes.
It is more pertinent to look at where their other points losses came - United's were at Southampton (unbeaten in the first three games of the season before their 1-0 home win over United) and 3-1 at home to Fulham, who had gained nine points from their previous six matches (a sign of top-eight form). Southampton, incidentally, went on to take 12 points from their opening six matches, just to emphasise their good form at the time of their match against United.
Fulham are the worst team, on form, to have taken points from Arsenal - they had gained seven points from their previous six matches. However, Arsenal's recent run of draws does not look so bad when you consider that Bolton had 13 points from their previous six matches, Everton had 11 and Leicester and Charlton both 10.
Chelsea, not surprisingly, have been the biggest culprits in dropping points recently against out-of-form rivals. They lost at Charlton and drew at Leeds - two teams who had taken just six and three points respectively from their six games before meeting Chelsea. On the other hand, earlier in the season it was no great surprise that they lost to Bolton (10 points from six games) or drew at Birmingham (11 from six).
Where this can help punters is in identifying matches in which the top teams might have more difficulty winning - basically, this means looking at their opponents' form over the past six games to see if they make a double-figure points tally.
Chelsea, for instance, have beaten only two teams with that sort of profile all season - Newcastle and Manchester United, both at home. Manchester United have beaten two in their recent run of six straight wins (Everton and Middlesbrough), as well as Birmingham earlier in the season, while Arsenal have also beaten two (Chelsea and Liverpool).
In other words, Manchester United's win strike-rate against such teams is 60 per cent, Chelsea's 50 per cent and Arsenal's a mere 33 per cent, which may reflect their misfortune in meeting more in-form sides than their two main rivals.
Arsenal face another such team tonight in Middlesbrough (fifth-best in the Premiership over the past six games, with 11 points). United's opponents, Newcastle, are not far off the standard with nine points, while Leicester go into their game with Chelsea with four points from their last six matches. The fact that Chelsea have taken only seven points themselves in that period is a leveller, however.
The problem with backing Boro is their low goals tally, as well as their poor record against Arsenal, who have won the last six meetings, home and away, including a 4-0 victory at Boro early this season. On the stats alone, however, the visitors are a reasonable option on the handicap, giving up one goal.
Leicester also look worth considering on the handicap against Chelsea, especially because their low points tally belies a recent record of just two defeats in 11 games against Premiership opposition.
Newcastle are easily the best outfit facing one of the top three this weekend and are the type of team who could win at Manchester United - the problem is they never do, losing six and drawing four of their 10 Premiership visits. They may be worth chancing on the handicap, however, as the injection of Kieron Dyer's pace up front could trouble United if he shows the form which blitzed Southampton in last week's FA Cup tie.
In the other Premiership fixtures, the trickiest games are Birmingham v Southampton, Fulham v Everton, Liverpool v Aston Villa and Portsmouth v Manchester City. That leaves Charlton as a home banker against Wolves, Leeds as a slightly riskier proposition at home to Spurs (whose improved home form has not been tested on the road, where they have been poor all season) and Bolton as the best away chance against local rivals Blackburn. Bolton have not picked up as many points recently as their play has deserved, but a repeat of their performances against Arsenal and Manchester United should be sufficient.
Manchester City are also interesting at Portsmouth, having ended their barren run in front of goal by scoring in their last six games. That hasn't brought a win yet, but they have lost points in three of their last four games to goals scored in the last 10 minutes and do not need much more improvement to get back on the winning trail (some luck might help, however). Besides Leicester, Portsmouth are the longest-priced home team in the Premiership this weekend, which might look generous after the game but seems a fair reflection of current form.
Elsewhere in Europe, Spain's Primera Liga returned from its Christmas break as unpredictable as ever but has thrown up one decent bet this weekend in Atletico Madrid, who host Athletic Bilbao. Both teams are flying high on the strength of their home form, which should tip the scales towards the Madrid side on this occasion as Bilbao have not taken a single point on their travels against a team outside the bottom seven.
Some of the big Spanish teams look worth opposing on the handicap, too, with Deportivo no certainties against crack away outfit Racing Santander and Valencia going to Albacete, who have been improving all season, especially at home.
An away bet worth a look is Sevilla, who go to Osasuna on the back of a 3-1 midweek cup win at Villarreal and last week's 2-0 home win over Albacete.
Real Madrid should have no problem on their visit to Real Sociedad, who are nothing like the side who pushed the champions so close last season.
Italy's big guns also look vulnerable this weekend. Juventus face the biggest hurdle at in-form Sampdoria, but Roma have no easy task at draw specialists Perugia (unbeaten in 16 games at home this season), while Reggina (whose last three games have brought wins over Lazio and Parma and a draw with Inter Milan) will be no pushover at AC Milan.
Lazio, who have won their last six home league games, look bankers for the visit of Brescia, who have a poor record against the big teams, especially away.
Inter Milan's away record (and the fact that they have been the best side in Italy over the past six games) makes them interesting at Parma, whose recent form has been way below their early-season standard.
Best homes: Charlton, Leeds, Lazio, Atletico Madrid.
Best aways: Bolton, Udinese, Real Madrid.
High goals: Portsmouth v Manchester City, Manchester United v Newcastle, Lazio v Brescia.
Low goals: Birmingham v Southampton, AC Milan v Reggina, Sampdoria v Juventus.