Gunners are down, but not out
Even without the talismanic Thierry Henry, champions Arsenal have the class to snatch all three points at Anfield
The faltering form of Arsenal and Liverpool comes under the spotlight this week, first in tomorrow night's big live Premiership clash at Anfield and then again in their live midweek Carling Cup quarter-finals against Manchester United and Spurs respectively.
Both teams were left teetering on the brink of Champions League elimination after disappointing results in midweek and their domestic hopes have taken a few knocks recently too - Liverpool have won just one of their last four in the Premiership, while Arsenal have won only one in five. Moreover, both teams have problems in attack - Liverpool are missing Djibril Cisse, Milan Baros and now Luis Garcia, who pulled a hamstring during the 1-0 defeat at Monaco on Tuesday. Thierry Henry, meanwhile, is doubtful for Arsenal after aggravating his Achilles injury during Wednesday's 1-1 at PSV Eindhoven.
Henry is such an ever-present for Arsenal that it is difficult to assess his importance to the team, beyond the fact that he is a world-class striker and any team would miss him to some extent. He has missed only two league matches since the start of the 2002-03 campaign and Arsenal have drawn both, but that hardly represents firm evidence that they cannot manage without him, especially with the likes of Jose Antonio Reyes and Dennis Bergkamp as back-up.
Liverpool's problems are more serious as they have lost all of their recognised front line and even they were not that dangerous against top-class opposition - Liverpool have scored only three goals in five games against top-half teams, and have exactly the same statistics in the Champions League.
If their goal average this season is a mere 0.6 in top games, it is hard to be confident that they will breach Arsenal's defence, which should be much more solid now that Sol Campbell is back. Arsenal are clearly not firing on all cylinders, but don't forget that only Manchester United have beaten them in 10 away games this season in league and Europe, and they have an exceptional recent record against Liverpool.
Since Michael Owen's late double snatched the FA Cup from their grasp in the May 2001 final, Arsenal have won five and drawn three of their eight clashes with Liverpool - including two wins and a draw at Anfield. There is no real advantage in backing Arsenal on the handicap, so a straight win looks the best bet. If Henry doesn't play, a low-scoring game might be in prospect, though the stats show a fairly even split of low-scoring and high-scoring games in this fixture.
Defeat would increase the pressure on Liverpool ahead of their clash with Spurs in the Carling Cup - a competition that, at this stage, represents their most realistic chance of landing some silverware this season, even though Rafael Benitez has not put out his strongest team in earlier rounds. Liverpool's league visit to White Hart Lane ended 1-1 on the first day of the season, but their away form has not been impressive since then (six defeats in 10 in all competitions) and their shortage of strikers will reduce their effectiveness even further.
Whether Spurs can take advantage will depend on whether they can show some improvement in their tricky Premiership match at home to Middlesbrough tomorrow night. The biggest negative about Boro is their below-par performances after Uefa Cup games (no win in four attempts), but Steve McLaren's side are still worth backing on the handicap.
Arsenal's midweek Carling Cup match brings a quick return to Old Trafford after their bitter 2-0 defeat last month, though it remains to be seen whether they - and, indeed, United - put out anything approaching their first-choice side. This is a match best avoided for betting purposes and the value pick in the midweek Cup games is likely to be Watford, who host Premiership side Portsmouth with a real chance of an upset. Watford are a well-organised side - unbeaten in 11 games - and they put out Southampton, another poor away side, in the last round.
Portsmouth's poor away form, especially against the better sides, also makes Bolton the banker bet in the Premiership this weekend. Bolton's home record is hard to fault this season and their direct approach looks sure to unsettle Portsmouth, who will miss star striker Ayegbeni Yakubu again.
Manchester United's season looks back on track now and they should prove it in tonight's live game at West Brom, whose 1-1 at Arsenal should not disguise the fact that they are in the bottom three on merit. The home side have taken only two points from a possible 21 against top-half sides and when they were last in the Premiership two seasons ago, they managed to pick up only one point in 10 games, home and away, against the big five, so their 4-1 home defeat by Chelsea is probably a better guide to their chance than the draw with Arsenal. It's a pity there is no handicap betting on this match, but United are worth considering for a decisive win at better odds on the handicap HAD.
Charlton v Chelsea, also live tonight, should provide another guide to whether the leaders are really improving under Jose Mourinho. Chelsea's title chances have been damaged in recent years by their failures in London derbies - last year, three of their seven defeats came against the other four London sides. Two were against Arsenal, but the other was a 4-2 defeat at Charlton, who have won five of their eight league matches against Chelsea since returning to the Premiership in 2000.
Charlton's home form is better this season, on paper at least, but this will be a big test for them, and for Chelsea's chances of overcoming the London derby factor in their title challenge. A draw would be no surprise.
There is no blockbuster in Spain to match last weekend's Barcelona-Real Madrid showdown, but the other halves of those two cities clash tonight when Espanyol host Atletico Madrid. Atletico are poor on the road for a team of their quality, but Espanyol's low-scoring home record does not inspire confidence either. Low goals looks a good bet.
The best bets in Spain lie with some of the lesser-known teams. Malaga are a strong home outfit - their only defeats in six so far this season came against Real Madrid and Valencia - and are generous odds against poor away side Albacete.
In-form Betis are unbeaten since mid-September and, having taken points at home against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia, they should have no problem beating Villarreal, who are a much weaker team away.
Wolfsburg were opposed at Hamburg last weekend, but they have to go back on the shortlist this time against Hertha Berlin. The difference now is that they are at home, where their long-term record is so strong and where they have won six out of seven this season. Hertha are an improving side and their ability was evident in their recent 3-1 win at Schalke, but they were lucky to scrape a home draw with bottom club Hansa Rostock last week and this looks a much tougher test.
The best bet in Italy is Siena on the handicap against Roma. Siena beat their big-name rivals as recently as last week - 2-1 in the cup - and that game was in Rome, so they must have a good chance of a repeat now that they are at home. Siena are second-bottom but their home form is respectable and their only defeats in their last 10 games have come against current top-four sides. Roma are in a slump, with only three wins all season and none in their last six games.
Best homes: Wolfsburg, Bolton, Bilbao, Betis, Malaga.
Best aways: Manchester United, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough.
High goals: Bayern Munich v Mainz, Wolfsburg v Hertha Berlin.
Low goals: Birmingham v Norwich, Espanyol v Atletico Madrid.
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 Bolton.
$150 win Wolfsburg, Bilbao, Betis, Malaga.
$200 handicap Middlesbrough.