Perils of following your star
It's easy to read too much into a team's lineup and hard to quantify the effect of a single player on a match's result
One of the biggest arguments in soccer betting is whether individual players make a significant difference to a team's performances, and this weekend might be a good test of the cases for and against.
Consider the following list of players, and the effect their presence, or absence, might have on their teams' (or former teams') chances this weekend - Scott Parker, Jay-Jay Okocha, Louis Saha, Fredi Kanoute, Michael Owen, Yakubu, Damien Duff, John Terry and Thierry Henry.
Let's start with Parker and Saha, the two big-money movers during the transfer window in England. The general view is that Charlton and Fulham, respectively, will miss the two players given most credit for their impressive rise to the higher echelons of the Premiership this season. But how much did Charlton miss Parker when he was left out of their last game at Everton, where they won 1-0? (They drew the other league game Parker missed this season, also away).
Fulham have played two games without Saha - their 3-1 defeat at Newcastle and last week's FA Cup 1-1 at Everton, where they were pegged back by a last-minute goal. Hardly conclusive evidence either way.
Some players do stand out as the essence of their teams' success. Paul Scholes has been identified as a prime example before - Manchester United have won nine and drawn one of the 11 league games this season when he has been in the starting lineup; of the eight games he has missed altogether, they have lost two and drawn two. The value of other players might be overrated, however.
The impression has been that Damien Duff's absence has coincided with Chelsea's recent lack of creativity - but coincidence looks the right word, because Chelsea's chances of winning are slightly lower when he plays a significant part (at least one half) in a match, according to the season's statistics, though their chances of losing are higher without him.
Michael Owen's apparent talismanic significance to Liverpool does not bear scrutiny based on this season's results - their chances of getting at least a draw, both overall and away, are virtually the same with or without the England striker.
The point is that it is easy to read too much into a team's lineup, and hard to quantify the effect of a single player on a team. What difference did it make to Arsenal that Thierry Henry did not play against Middlesbrough last week? They still won 4-1 - exactly the scoreline they had managed against the same team two weeks earlier, when Henry was in the team.
Another test of the theory has been worrying some Premiership managers for weeks - the African Nations Cup, which started last week, runs until February 14 and has claimed 18 Premiership players for duty in Tunisia.
Three players whose absence may hurt their Premiership teams are Okocha, Kanoute and Yakubu, and punters might want to tread warily with Bolton, Spurs and Portsmouth - their respective teams - in the next fortnight.
There does not appear to be much of an edge for punters with the big three in England this weekend. Manchester United and Arsenal should maintain their outstanding records at home to Southampton and Manchester City respectively but are no certainties to cover the handicap at odds-on, while Chelsea have perhaps the easiest task on paper, at Blackburn, but are not the safest bet at the moment.
Last week's 1-0 FA Cup win at Scarborough did little to suggest that Chelsea's recent scoring difficulties are over and Blackburn, who are good at set-pieces (Chelsea's weakness), are not without hope.
One final thought on the player front - John Terry is doubtful for Chelsea: since August 2002, their win rate with Terry in the side is 67 per cent (26 from 39 games); without him, it is just 33 per cent (seven from 21).
For a straight win bet at odds-against, four Premiership teams worth considering are Leicester, Newcastle, Leeds and Spurs. Leicester might be the best of the lot as they appear over-priced for their home match with Aston Villa, given that they often lead in their matches and Villa have a dire away record (especially once they go behind).
Spurs, despite Kanoute's absence, have hit form recently and rate a solid chance at Fulham, whose home record remains strong but is not without its occasional poor result (such as the 0-0 with Wolves).
Newcastle are always tempting because they are a match for any team on their day, as they showed in their recent 0-0 at Manchester United. The problem is that they flatter to deceive and draw too many games, which could be the case again at defence-minded Birmingham. If Newcastle can get in front, however, they should be able to stay there against such a low-scoring side.
Leeds are in all sorts of turmoil and won't appeal to many punters, but few teams have beaten them out of sight since Eddie Gray took over as caretaker manager and they look worth a shot against low-scoring Middlesbrough. Leeds' chance appears better in a tight game, which this promises to be.
Germany's Bundesliga resumes this weekend after a six-week break and there are some tempting bets based on the first half of the season, though the lack of recent form should make punters cautious.
The leading teams do not appear to have difficult tasks, with Werder Bremen, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart all facing sides from the lower half of the league. High-scoring Werder, at home to second-bottom Hertha Berlin, look the best bet on the handicap, giving up one goal.
The most competitive game of the weekend in Germany appears to be fifth-placed Bochum v Wolfsburg (seventh). Both teams owe their high positions to their outstanding home form, so Bochum should have the edge, though their high draw ratio is a slight worry.
The Italian giants also look pretty safe, despite facing some apparently in-form rivals. Roma and AC Milan, in particular, are impossible to fault and should win away at Brescia and Bologna respectively. Udinese also appeal at home to Modena, who still don't convince as a quality side despite some good results. The best bet on the handicap in Spain are Villarreal, who should hold an edge over second-bottom Espanyol.
Best homes: Bochum, Werder Bremen, Leicester, Liverpool, Udinese.
Best aways: Newcastle, Roma, AC Milan.
High goals: Werder Bremen v Hertha Berlin, Charlton v Bolton, Hannover v Hamburg.
Low goals: 1860 Munich v Kaiserslautern, Leeds v Middlesbrough, Lazio v Sampdoria.