Gunners set to reach new heights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 August, 2004, 12:00am

Arsene Wenger's men should have few problems getting past Middlesbrough tomorrow night, and in the process equal Nottingham Forest's record of 42 league games without defeat

Arsenal are long odds-on to equal another record tomorrow night - and they could hardly have picked better opponents than Middlesbrough. Home or away, the champions have made hay against Boro in recent seasons, winning the last six league encounters by an aggregate of 18 goals to two.

A seventh victory over Boro in tomorrow's late TV match at Highbury will take Arsenal's unbeaten league run to 42 games, equalling the 26-year-old record in the top flight set by Nottingham Forest. Assuming they achieve that target, and they are 1.30 to do so, Arsenal will have an outstanding chance to take the outright record in the early hours of Thursday morning, when they play host to Blackburn. Again, that match is live on TV in a week when most Premiership teams are playing twice.

It is hard to see Arsenal being beaten in either game and they could stretch the record to 49 before they face their first really tricky match of the season - away to Manchester United on October 23.

Few Premiership matches are easy, of course, but Arsenal have made a flying start to the new season and still look a class above the rest. Boro have certainly found it tougher than most against the champions, with Arsenal winning five of those six recent league matches by at least two goals. Boro are widely expected to challenge for European qualification following the arrival of top strikers in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka, but they would have to find some very rapid improvement to stop Arsenal at the moment.

Chelsea - one of only four teams with a 100 per cent record after the opening day - also feature in two live Premiership games this week. Both are away, at Birmingham tonight and then in a south London derby against newcomers Crystal Palace in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Jose Mourinho's side have an outstanding chance of taking maximum points based on their away form last season, when they won 11 out of 15 on visits to teams outside the top five, but the Jockey Club's odds compilers have them too short for the Birmingham game and will make them virtually unbackable against Palace. Low goals is the best bet for Birmingham v Chelsea, who had two 0-0s last season.

It is often best to look at the middle-ranking teams for some value and the only eye-catching away option is Portsmouth, who visit Charlton. Portsmouth drew 1-1 at Arsenal early last season (and arguably were robbed of victory by a dubious penalty) but were largely disappointing on their travels until embarking on a good run of form in the spring, which included a 1-1 at Charlton. In ratings terms they didn't really improve but their overall away form showed they were a match for the poorer home teams and Charlton fall into that category, with a home win strike-rate of under 40 per cent over the past three seasons. Charlton shouldn't be odds-on and Portsmouth are over-priced.

Another good option this week is Fulham's home games against Bolton and Middlesbrough. Fulham have been a strong home side throughout their three seasons in the Premiership and should be worth following now that they move back to their real home at Craven Cottage. Bolton and Boro are reasonably good travellers, but both lost away to Fulham last season. Fulham v Boro is one of the live midweek matches.

The other solid home banker this weekend is Newcastle, who host Tottenham Hotspur tonight. There are reported difficulties in the Newcastle camp but there was not too much wrong with their performance at Boro on opening day - apart from the fact that they let the lead slip twice, with a last-minute Boro equaliser costing them victory. That sort of mishap was a regular theme of Newcastle's away form last season, but at home it was a different story. They are unbeaten in 13 games in the Premiership and Europe at St James' Park during 2004 (10 wins and three draws) and are available at fair odds - only a little shorter than Chelsea are to win at Birmingham.

Spurs may well turn out to be one of the season's big improvers, but it is asking a lot for new coach Jacques Santini to turn around last season's poor away record at this stage. Spurs took something from only six of their 19 away games last season - and five of those matches were against teams in the bottom seven on home form. Newcastle were fourth in that ranking, which emphasises their form superiority over Spurs.

Manchester United and Liverpool both have home games they will be expected to win this weekend - against Norwich and Manchester City respectively - before turning their attention towards Champions League qualification in midweek.

With both sides holding a lead from their away legs, there should not be much temptation to rest players in their Premiership fixtures. Neither have been at their most fluent so far, however, and the short win odds do not appeal. In fact, it is a disappointment that Manchester United v Norwich is not available on the handicap, as last season's Division One champions would have made a decent bet to keep the score close. As it is, the best option is to back the draw on the HAD (home, away, draw) handicap, ensuring a payout at a decent price if United win by a goal.

As well as the English teams, several other big European clubs are long odds-on to make it into the Champions League draw, so there are few matches of real competitive interest elsewhere. Probably the most interesting is the all-Spanish final in the Intertoto Cup, with Atletico Madrid attempting to overturn a 2-0 deficit as they host Villarreal in the second leg.

The Intertoto is becoming a regular summer outing for Villarreal, who qualified through last year's tournament and then made it all the way to the Uefa Cup semi-finals before losing to eventual winners Valencia. They look set to progress again, but Atletico are a very strong home team and should make a good fight of it. Expected odds of around 1.8 would make Atletico the bet of the week in Europe.

Valencia - automatic qualifiers for the Champions League after winning the Spanish title last season - bid to add to their trophy haul this week in the Spanish Super Cup. They visit Real Zaragoza, who defeated Real Madrid to win the Spanish Cup final, for the first leg tonight, with the return to come in midweek.

Zaragoza were improving towards the end of last season, with only two home defeats from 14 league and cup matches during 2004. One of those losses was 1-0 to Valencia in April, but Zaragoza proved they can raise themselves for cup competition and are a decent chance at the odds.

Best homes: Fulham (v Bolton), Newcastle (v Tottenham), Atletico Madrid, Fulham (v Middlesbrough).

Best aways: Portsmouth.

High goals: Liverpool v Manchester City.

Low goals: Southampton v Blackburn, Birmingham v Chelsea.


Each wee our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.

This week:

$250 Fulham (v Bolton).

$400 Newcastle (v Tottenham).

$250 Fulham (v Middlesbrough).

$100 HAD handicap draw Manchester United v Norwich.