Capitalise on low-goals wager
Boro and Bolton will vie for the season's first major trophy, but history shows it's likely to be a low-scoring affair in Cardiff
The first major trophy of the season is up for grabs tomorrow when Bolton and Middlesbrough clash in the League Cup final at the Millennium Stadium.
It is not the most glamorous final, but both teams have earned the right to be in Cardiff - between them, they saw off six Premiership sides en route to the final, with Bolton's run including a 3-2 win at Liverpool, while Boro won home and away in the two-legged semi-final against (an albeit weakened) Arsenal.
Middlesbrough are slight favourites and that status is probably deserved after their recent 3-2 win at Manchester United, which showed that they have added more bite in attack to their impressive defensive qualities. Bolton arguably have more talent in their ranks, with the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff, but they are also more erratic and their defending was poor in last week's 3-1 home defeat by Manchester City.
Preference is for Boro, whose cagey game should prove better suited amid the nerves of the big occasion. With so much at stake for two clubs, whose trophy rooms have lain bare for so long, players will be anxious to avoid mistakes and this match should be in keeping with recent finals, which have tended to be low-scoring affairs. Three of the last seven finals have gone to extra-time (four of eight, counting the replayed 1997 final, which Boro lost - as they did in 1998, again after extra-time) and five of the seven have had fewer than three goals in the 90 minutes.
It would be no surprise if the match went to extra-time (bets are settled on the result after 90 minutes) and options well worth considering are the draw-draw double result, a 0-0 and low goals on the HiLo.
That leaves eight Premiership games (Birmingham and Tottenham are not in action as they were scheduled to play the League Cup finalists) and the big three look likely winners against sides with question marks over their form - Arsenal at home to Charlton, Manchester United at Fulham and Chelsea at Manchester City. It is possible that Fulham and City could reward handicap backers by avoiding defeat, but there are better straight win bets to be had in more unfashionable quarters.
The first is Everton, who look a reasonable shot for a home victory over Aston Villa. Admittedly, Villa are in good form and should have won last week's Birmingham derby by a comfortable margin, but Everton's home record is arguably better than it looks (they are unbeaten in nine games against sides outside the top six - Villa are seventh) and would be better still but for their goalscoring problems.
Wayne Rooney's return to form in last week's 3-3 at Southampton suggests their approach play might get a better return now. Villa did not handle Birmingham's long-ball game in the latter stages of last week's derby and might struggle against similar tactics from Everton.
Leicester might not appeal to many punters at the moment, but they look a decent proposition in their home match with Wolves. Leicester have had no problem finding the net, especially against the non-elite, and should be able to outscore their fellow strugglers. Wolves have managed just seven goals in 13 away matches, with just one of those coming from a recognised striker.
The other Premiership games - Blackburn v Southampton, Leeds v Liverpool and Portsmouth v Newcastle - look close calls, but the latter is attractive as a high-goals match. Both sides have an attacking outlook and their respective home and away matches average 2.5 to three goals.
The derby factor comes into play again this weekend in Spain, where Real Betis host city rivals Sevilla. The reverse fixture ended 2-2 (the seventh draw in the last 12 meetings) but was unusually high-scoring (eight of the other 11 most recent encounters have had fewer than three goals).
This has to be a good option for a low-goals match, but the standout match for a stalemate is Stuttgart v Schalke in the Bundesliga. The home side still have the meanest defence in Germany, while their goalscoring problems suggest they will struggle to find a way through Schalke's rearguard, which is not far behind Stuttgart's on recent evidence.
Other low-scoring possibilities are Parma v Roma and Sampdoria v Chievo in Italy, while Osasuna have to be considered again after last week's 1-1 with Mallorca was their 21st league match out of 25 to feature two goals or under. Confidence is reduced this time because their opponents are bottom club Murcia, who either stand firm or crumble (four 1-0s in their last eight, but also three games with four goals or more). In addition, the reverse fixture was one of the four 'high-scoring' games in Osasuna's record, ending 2-1.
Deportivo v Barcelona might also be low-scoring based on their records in games against fellow top-half sides - nine of Barca's 14 have had had two goals or under, while Depor's record is eight of 13, including the 2-0 win at Barcelona in October.
Back in Germany, Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund can be relied on for plenty of goals - eight of their last 10 clashes have produced at least three goals. Werder are a surprisingly big price for a team so far ahead in the league - Dortmund have improved since the winter break, but there is no serious suggestion that Werder's bubble has burst. On the contrary, they have shown true championship quality by grinding out results even when the goals haven't been flowing.
In-form Bochum are banker material at home to Hansa Rostock, whose form against top-half sides reads eight defeats from 10 (their two wins came against Schalke and Borussia Dortmund, when both were out of form). Hansa are in decent form themselves but their poor scoring record on the road (just three goals in six visits to top-half opposition) gives them little hope of breaching Bochum's defence (three goals conceded in 10 home games).
Away bankers are hard to find this week, especially for those unwilling to take short prices about the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Valencia, who are not stone-cold certainties at Espanyol. Athletic Bilbao, now a solid all-round team, are worth considering at Villarreal, while Bologna are another option in Italy.
Bologna, who visit second-bottom Perugia, haven't lost to a bottom-half side since late September, while Perugia have not won at home all season (though they have drawn nine of 11). Bologna's 2004 record includes good wins against Udinese, in-form Lecce (both away) and Chievo, so they must have a decent chance.
Best homes: Bochum, Werder Bremen, Leicester, Sampdoria, Deportivo.
Best aways: Bologna, Bilbao.
High goals: Werder Bremen v Borussia Dortmund, Fulham v Manchester United, Portsmouth v Newcastle.
Low goals: Stuttgart v Schalke, Betis v Sevilla, Parma v Roma.
Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$200 win Bochum.
$200 High goals Werder Bremen v Borussia Dortmund (HiLo).
$200 High goals Fulham v Manchester United (HiLo).
$150 win Leicester, Sampdoria.
$100 Stuttgart v Schalke 0-0.