Commitment is key to success
Backing home sides who still have much at stake could prove worthwhile
It is the final weekend of the league season in England and Italy, with two rounds to play in Spain and Germany, and most of the major issues have been settled. All four champions have been crowned and most of the relegated teams are known, so punters will have to work hard again to find betting-friendly matches.
The facts and figures are that only two teams in the English Premier League, Aston Villa and Newcastle, have something to play for - the fifth place in the table that ensures qualification for next season's UEFA Cup. That leaves 18 teams with nothing at stake.
It is a similar story in Italy's Serie A, where 12 of the 18 teams have nothing to play for, and again the Jockey Club has included only five of the nine matches on its list. Near the top Inter, Parma and Lazio are scrapping over the final European qualification places - Lazio are guaranteed a UEFA Cup spot after their midweek Coppa Italia win over Juventus but can still take the final Champions League place by finishing fourth.
At the other end of the table, it is only a question of settling the final finishing order of Modena, Empoli and Perugia - two will be relegated automatically, while the other will go into a playoff with the sixth-placed team from Serie B.
In Germany, five teams (Bayern Munich, Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen, Bochum and Borussia Dortmund) are in the battle for European places, while seven teams (from Freiburg in 11th to second-bottom Eintracht Frankfurt) could still be relegated, though the odds are heavily against any late changes. Six of the 18 teams definitely have nothing to play for.
The most open league is Spain's Primera Liga, where only champions Valencia and bottom club Murcia have nothing at stake. Several of the other 18 teams have only a slim chance of Europe or relegation, but many scenarios are possible mathematically.
The first games to focus on again are those with a match-up between a team guaranteed to be 100 per cent committed and an opponent with nothing but pride at stake. It was noted here last week that, across the final three weekends of last season in England, Spain and Germany, this approach would have found a total of 28 matches and victory in 19 cases (a strike-rate of 68 per cent) went to the team with something to play for.
So far this season, the same factor has thrown up 14 matches in the three countries, with victory going to the 'committed' team nine times (a 64 per cent strike-rate).
The teams which fit into the category this weekend in England are Aston Villa (at home to Manchester United) and Newcastle (away to Liverpool). There are four in Germany - Freiburg (at home to Hamburg), Hannover (at home to Wolfsburg), Kaiserslautern (away to Schalke) and Leverkusen (away to Werder Bremen) - and one apiece in Spain and Italy - Real Madrid at Murcia and Parma at home to Udinese, though both are very short odds. If five of those eight matches end in victory for the 'committed' team (a 63 per cent strike-rate), punters could expect at least a 10 per cent profit to level stakes.
A refinement to this approach is to bet only on 'committed' teams playing at home - across the four major European leagues this season, that has produced 10 wins out of 12 (an 83 per cent strike-rate). Taking that route would leave Villa, Freiburg, Hannover and Parma as the bets - probably three of the four would need to win for a level-stakes profit, but it would return a minimum of 30 per cent on top of the investment.
The caveat again is that this analysis deals with a very small sample, so it is impossible to be certain that the 'non-trier' factor is at work or that the same results will be repeated. However, the limited evidence does appear to back up the conventional wisdom about lack of effort at this stage of the season from teams with nothing to play for.
There are some worthwhile options among the other matches, even those involving two teams with nothing to play for. Blackburn, Bolton and Portsmouth - who are all ending the season in good form - look good home bets in the English Premier League. All three face teams who are either out of form or have a poor recent away record.
Atletico Madrid are a fair price at home to Real Zaragoza in Spain. Both teams would like to get something from the game, but Atletico's need is greater if they want to take a tighter grip on the last UEFA Cup qualification place - Atletico will not want to go to fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao next weekend requiring a win. Aside from such considerations, Atletico's strong home record puts them several notches above Zaragoza's general away form.
There are few appealing away bets anywhere, but one of the safest is Inter Milan at Empoli. Inter need all three points to be sure of a place in the Champions League qualifiers and should make no mistake this time, even though Empoli require at least a point to get into the relegation playoff. Other big issues will be settled this week, notably the UEFA Cup final and the English Division One playoff semi-finals.
Valencia v Marseille promises to be a high-quality UEFA Cup final. Valencia will be favourites to complete a league and cup double and their strength is obvious from their imperious progress through the UEFA Cup rounds - nine wins, two draws and just one defeat, with eight clean sheets in those 12 matches. Their defence is a major asset, but their good goal-scoring record disguises the fact that they have no really top-class striker, which could make them vulnerable in a one-off cup game.
Marseille have reached the final by a much tougher route, having beaten Italian and English high-flyers Inter, Liverpool and Newcastle in the last three rounds (without losing home or away). In Didier Drogba they have the competition's outstanding striker and, assuming he recovers from his hip injury, his battle with the Valencia defence will be crucial to the outcome. Two sound defences are likely to make this a cagey, low-scoring affair, with a good chance of extra-time and even penalties. Drogba could make the difference, however, so narrow preference is for Marseille to cause an upset.
The English Division One playoffs kicked off last night with Crystal Palace v Sunderland. Ipswich host West Ham tonight in the other semi-final, with the second legs to follow in the early hours of Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
Fifteen years of playoff history have thrown up some interesting statistics - the key one being that the ties are rarely settled after the first leg. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the incidence of first-leg draws (36 per cent) is well above the 20 per cent draw average (the second-leg results are spot on the average). Home advantage is much more important in the second leg, especially if there has been a win either way in the first leg - a 68 per cent win strike-rate for the home team in the second leg if they won or lost the first leg (that equates to odds of under 1.5).
The stats are also heavily in favour of form teams - five of the last eight teams promoted to the Premiership through the playoff system had the highest points tally from the final eight games of the regular season (two of the other three were only a point worse than the top form side). Crystal Palace come out top on that score with 19 points from their last eight games, followed by Ipswich and West Ham on 14 and Sunderland with 11. Preference here is for West Ham overall, but Palace have a compelling case on the stats.
Best homes: Freiburg, Blackburn, Bolton, Portsmouth, Atletico Madrid.
Best aways: Inter Milan, Bilbao.
High goals: Werder Bremen v Bayer Leverkusen, Bolton v Fulham, Charlton v Southampton.
Low goals: Stuttgart v Bayern Munich, Empoli v Inter Milan, Osasuna v Bilbao.
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.
$150 win Freiburg, Hannover, Blackburn, Bolton, Portsmouth, Atletico Madrid.
$100 win Aston Villa.