United wary of falling behind

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

A tough weekend awaits the former champions as Arsenal and Chelsea threaten to widen the gap at the top


Manchester United start and finish the Premiership action this weekend with two local derbies against Blackburn and Everton that could set the tone for their season.


First up for United is tonight's early live TV clash at Blackburn, where even a draw might mean that Sir Alex Ferguson's team trail eight points behind Arsenal and Chelsea by the end of the weekend (albeit with a game in hand), as the London teams are long odds-on to beat Norwich and Southampton respectively.


United were busy in Champions League action in midweek, which allowed Arsenal and Chelsea to open an early six-point advantage. Monday's home clash with Everton is United's game in hand, which means that they have the opportunity to keep the leaders within their sights, but they will also be aware that an early slip-up would be a boost for their rivals.


Everton have a poor record against United generally and in particular at Old Trafford, where they have lost on their last seven visits, but the Blackburn match looks a trickier hurdle for United. Blackburn have won two and drawn one of their clashes with United at Ewood Park since their return to the Premiership three seasons ago, and the latest victory came as recently as May 1 when Jon Stead scored a late goal in a 1-0 win.


That was one of only five home wins for Blackburn last season, when they were the second-worst home side in the Premiership, so it may be asking a lot for them to repeat the feat now. It is just as pertinent, however, to raise question marks over whether United can repair their damaged away form - last season they won five and lost five away to the 10 bottom-half sides (an incredibly poor return for a top team - both Arsenal and Chelsea were undefeated in such contests).


A United win wouldn't answer all the doubts about their away form but it would be an important first step. However, Blackburn often play above themselves against United, even at Old Trafford, and could well get a point.


Chelsea will be under similar scrutiny against Southampton later tonight, as their principal fault last season was their lack of invention when teams defended in depth at Stamford Bridge. New coach Jose Mourinho appears happy to keep clean sheets and settle for one-goal wins, but he will have to teach his side some new tricks if that is to be achieved consistently at home. Last season three of Chelsea's last 10 home league games ended 0-0 (as did three of their seven Champions League home games, admittedly against much classier opposition) and two more were unconvincing 1-0s.


Southampton were one of those 10 visitors and lost 4-0, so they might not be the ideal test for Chelsea at the moment, although on the flipside they have one of the better recent records at Stamford Bridge, with a win and two draws from their last five visits. It is usually wrong to use off-the-field events as a basis for betting selections, but on this occasion the turmoil at Southampton is enough to discourage a handicap bet on them to keep the match tight.


Norwich entertain Arsenal in tonight's later live match and this might also be closer than most people expect. Norwich have had the toughest start of the three promoted sides and have taken only two points so far, but last season's Division One champions have acquitted themselves well enough in away matches at Manchester United and Newcastle to suggest that they are not out of their depth.


Arsenal is another big test, but this time Norwich have home advantage and the odds overrate Arsenal's supremacy - although the champions were undefeated last season, it is worth remembering that they drew four out of 10 away to bottom-half sides, so the gulf in class is not unbridgeable. A draw is the value bet.


Eleven of the 15 matches previewed in detail inside are live on TV, with Spain's Primera Liga kicking off tonight and the German Bundesliga entering week three.


In Spain the main interest is Real Madrid's trip to Mallorca tomorrow night, which should provide an entertaining start to the season as their last four league meetings have produced 21 goals, with two wins apiece. Real, intriguingly, now have an English spine to their team, with defender Jonathan Woodgate and striker Michael Owen joining David Beckham among the galacticos, and it will be fascinating to see whether that will add the solidity that was so lacking last season.


Tomorrow's game should be a good test of the new Real, though Mallorca's attacking threat will be reduced by Samuel Eto'o's transfer to Barcelona - the Cameroon marksman scored four of Mallorca's 10 goals in those recent encounters. Real should be able to make a winning start.


Spain's other three serious title contenders are also in live TV action - Barcelona and Deportivo are away at Santander and Espanyol respectively tomorrow, while Valencia host city neighbours Villarreal in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and none of the trio is a win certainty.


Santander v Barcelona is a handicap game and the hosts, who have lost only two of their last 10 home games against Barcelona, look a possible bet.


The first weekend of the season is not the time to have a maximum bet, but the best options in Spain appear to be Atletico Madrid (v Malaga) and Sevilla (v Albacete), who are both solid home teams. Real Betis, who visit promoted side Numancia, are attractive odds to continue their good away form from last season.


Germany offers better choices, with two weeks of the league season played as well as the first round of the League Cup. Hamburg, who lost their first two league games and crashed out of the Cup to amateur side Paderborn, may not look the best bet against Nurnberg, but they often bounce back at home. Their only home game so far was against Bayern Munich, so that defeat can be forgiven, and they would probably have won the Cup match but for a sending-off, so talk of crisis is probably over the top.


Monchengladbach were also knocked out of the Cup last weekend and they will find it hard to bounce back at Freiburg, who are unbeaten so far this season and are beginning to look an accomplished Bundesliga side.


The best bet on the handicap is in the Bundesliga with Bochum, who have decent prospects of a win at promoted Bielefeld and should get a draw at least to save the stake.


Bochum were an improving away side last season and have started well, with draws against probable top-half teams Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen, while Bielefeld could not score in their home game with Borussia Monchengladbach.


Best homes: Freiburg, Hamburg, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Portsmouth.


Best aways: Bochum, Betis.


High goals: Werder Bremen v Wolfsburg, Mallorca v Real Madrid.


Low goals: Aston Villa v Newcastle, Osasuna v Bilbao.


THOUSAND-DOLLAR WAGER


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.


This week:


$250 win Freiburg.


$250 win Hamburg.


$250 win Atletico Madrid.


$250 win Portsmouth.