The perils of a big-three roll-up
So far this season, the top teams have failed to synchronise their victories, making the all-up a risky proposition
England's big three take turns on tonight's Premiership programme, with Manchester United kicking off the live action at Birmingham, followed by Arsenal v Aston Villa and finally Chelsea's visit to Manchester City. All-up backers might be getting wary of combining Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United by now, however, as the trio have obliged on the same weekend just twice from six attempts so far this season. With several of Europe's other big guns - such as AC Milan and Real Madrid - also missing the target on a regular basis, this has been an expensive start to the season for short-odds backers.
What a contrast to the start of last season, when the Arsenal-Chelsea-United combination clicked on eight of the first 10 attempts and it looked the easiest system in the world to continue backing them. The rest of the season proved otherwise, however, with only five more successes from 20 attempts.
United's post-Christmas slump wasn't really to blame, either, because they were the sole cause of the bet's failure on only three out of 17 occasions. Last season's early run of success now looks like a blip - this season's 33 per cent success rate is much more the norm - so punters should think twice before combining England's big three teams. They are rarely good odds - Arsenal, for example, should be around 1.50 for the win tonight against Villa.
Although they look the most likely winners from the big three, Arsenal still represent no value. United are next best, simply because of Birmingham's poor record against the best teams, and for once their odds look accurate.
Chelsea, though, should be the longest odds of the three as they appear to have the most difficult task this weekend.
It is hard to argue with Chelsea's record under Jose Mourinho - eight wins and two draws from 10 games in all competitions - but they are no certainties at Manchester City. Kevin Keegan's team are one of the few with the genuine class to trouble the top sides, even though they can't manage it on a consistent basis. They beat only one of the top five at home last season - local rivals United 4-1 - but in the two previous Premiership seasons they won two out of five, which is not a bad return. Their record against Chelsea is poor, but they should have been well ahead in last season's home match before a sucker-punch goal condemned them to a 1-0 defeat.
The 1-0 scoreline is something of a Chelsea speciality, especially away, and City won't find it easy to break down the visitors' defence. But Chelsea are no more certain to shrug off their own goalscoring difficulties. Statistics were produced this week to show that Chelsea are the most attacking team in the Premiership, based on the number of shots on goal. It was a classic example of 'lies, damned lies and statistics' - no matter how unlucky Chelsea have been, or how much possession they have had, the bottom line is that they have not translated their approach play into goals. If the argument was worth pursuing, we would have to examine the 'quality' of those shots (how many were genuine goalscoring opportunities?) but it's not.
Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier regularly made similar claims about his team's attacking intent, and they were no more believable then. In short, Chelsea's win odds are too short. City's chances of avoiding defeat, in my book, translate to odds of 1.8. The handicap line is sure to be set much higher, making them a value bet to get at least a draw. The other handicap picks in the Premiership would be Fulham, who look overpriced on all counts at home to Liverpool, and Newcastle. Liverpool have not performed well away all season and, although they have kept most of the games tight, they do not appeal as a win bet until they prove that they can cope without Michael Owen and Emile Heskey. Fulham are strong enough at home to ensure that any Liverpool weakness will be exploited.
Newcastle are away to Charlton in tomorrow night's live Premiership game.
Charlton have not made a convincing case that they have put last season's poor home form behind them, despite taking 10 points out of a possible 12 so far. Newcastle have lost only once at The Valley in five Premiership visits and their low defeat rate on the road makes them a pretty safe handicap bet.
There could be more trouble in store for the big names in Spain, with Real Madrid facing a tough trip to Real Betis, Barcelona taking on local rivals Espanyol and Valencia hosting in-form Sevilla.
Betis are the pick to cause an upset. They started badly at home with a 4-1 defeat by Espanyol, but their results since have confirmed them as a potential top-six side. They have beaten Bilbao and drawn with Valencia at home, as well as drawing away at Deportivo, who went on to beat Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. Betis have lost this fixture only once in the past decade (that was in their last relegation season), with three wins and five draws.
They can rarely have met a Madrid team in such disarray and must have a better win chance than the odds suggest.
Other good bets in Spain are strong home teams Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid, who host Malaga and Racing Santander respectively. Bilbao suffered a surprise 3-1 defeat at promoted Getafe last time, but they should be a different prospect back in their San Mames fortress, where they defeated Real Madrid 2-1 last month. Malaga have started well but have a poor record against the best home sides.
Atletico are also much better at home - where they are the only team in Europe to have held Barcelona so far - and should be too strong for Racing, who have problems up front.
There is a similar scenario for Osasuna at home to Albacete. The hosts have a good record overall this season and their solid defence is likely to shut out Albacete, who have failed to score in four of their six games so far.
It is hard to resist the top two in Germany, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart.
Wolfsburg have proved much more effective on the road this season and should win at Hannover, who are in mid-table but have picked up most of their points against out-of-form teams and still have the look of relegation candidates. The handicap offers a safety net if the match is a draw.
Judged on reputation alone, Stuttgart v Dortmund looks a close match but in reality there is a bigger gap than the odds suggest. Stuttgart were let down last season by a lack of goals at crucial moments but that problem appears to have been solved and their sound defence should hold Dortmund.
Nothing really appeals in Italy's Serie A, but in-form Juventus should stay top with victory over surprise package Messina. Juventus also rate as the best-value bet at this stage in the midweek Champions League fixtures, when they should score a home win over Bayern Munich.
Best homes: Stuttgart, Everton, Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Osasuna, Portsmouth.
Best aways: Newcastle, Wolfsburg.
High goals: Bayern Munich v Schalke, Bolton v Crystal Palace.
Low goals: Everton v Southampton, West Brom v Norwich, Fiorentina v Siena.
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 Stuttgart, Everton, Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Osasuna, Portsmouth.
$100 win Fulham.