History rules against Chelsea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 December, 2004, 12:00am

Arsenal have had the upper hand in the two sides' last 17 Premiership meetings

Arsenal v Chelsea is the match of the weekend, and arguably of the season so far, but there are plenty of other thrills in store on a cracking programme.

Everton v Liverpool kicks off the live action in tonight's early match and there's another big English derby in tomorrow's early kick-off when Aston Villa host Birmingham.

Manchester United round off the English Premiership weekend when they visit Fulham in Monday's late match and there's also top-class action from the rest of Europe, with Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus and Bayern Munich featured in other live games.

Most interest, however, will focus on tomorrow night's clash at Highbury and, while it's too early to talk about this match being a title decider, it is clearly a match of huge significance. A win for Chelsea would put them eight points clear of Arsenal, while victory for the champions would reduce the gap to just two points.

There were four big question marks surrounding Chelsea's title challenge at the start of the season and, while they have answered some of them already, this match will provide another test of their improvement under Jose Mourinho. In fact, all four question marks are wrapped up in this one contest.

Number one on the list was Chelsea's ability to take points off the other members of England's Big Five - Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle. With the gap now so large between the elite and the rest, this mini-league is becoming more and more crucial to the title race. Last season, Arsenal were unbeaten in eight games against the other elite teams and collected 18 points out of a possible 24, compared to 10 apiece for Chelsea and United - the significance was clear in Arsenal's winning margin of 11 points over Chelsea (and 15 over United).

Chelsea have made a good start in this mini-league this season with three wins out of three (and no goals conceded), but all those have been at home, so this will be a test of their ability to deliver a big performance away from Stamford Bridge.

The second question mark concerned Chelsea's ability to overcome the 'derby factor' - dropped points against the other London teams having also damaged their title chances in recent seasons. They have answered this query, too, with three wins and a draw so far in London derbies, but this is the big one - everyone knows that Arsenal have been Chelsea's real stumbling block in their capital clashes.

Chelsea haven't beaten Arsenal in their last 17 Premiership meetings, going back to September 1995, and their Premiership record at Highbury is nine defeats and three draws from 12 visits. However, they proved it could be done with a 2-1 victory at Highbury in their Champions League quarter-final last April.

This match, then, is one big opportunity for Chelsea to answer all three questions over whether they can cope with the demands posed by the elite mini-league, London derbies and, above all, Arsenal.

There is one more question mark that has not been answered satisfactorily by Chelsea, however, and it could prove crucial to tomorrow night's match. Are their strikers good enough when it comes to the big matches against the best defences?

It might seem a silly question about a team who have scored four goals in five of their last seven league games, but three of those matches were against relegation candidates and the other two beaten teams, Charlton and Newcastle, are currently lying 10th and 12th respectively.

It has been a different story when Chelsea have come up against the leading contenders for a place in Europe - they have averaged only a goal per game in their clashes with Everton, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Bolton, despite playing four of those six games at home. It is true that they haven't lost any of those matches, but none of those opponents carried the goal threat posed by Arsenal at Highbury. Chelsea's defence has been rock-solid under Mourinho, but it is rare for Arsenal not to score in a game and Chelsea's forwards may have to do more this time just to keep the score even.

Arsenal's return to goal-scoring form (eight goals in two home games over the past week) has set up the clash perfectly, and the big doubt on their side concerns their defence. Despite Sol Campbell's return, they do not look as solid as last season, partly because their obvious weak point - goalkeeper - has been exposed. Manuel Almunia does not look the answer and, whether he plays or Jens Lehmann is recalled, the aerial threat of Didier Drogba (and John Terry at set pieces) could be a big weapon for Chelsea. Patrick Vieira's absence through suspension reduces the lack of cover in front of defence and Arsenal will have to be on their guard against the midfield runs of Arjen Robben and Frank Lampard, who are probably Chelsea's two most dangerous players.

It all adds up to a mouthwatering clash and, with two such closely matched teams, a draw is a serious possibility.

Slight preference is for Arsenal, however, because of their greater forward power. There has not been a goalless encounter in the last 19 matches between these teams in all competitions and you have to go back almost as far even to find a game where one team failed to score. Over the past five seasons, high-scoring games (over 2.5 goals) have outnumbered low-scoring matches by more than two to one, and a bet on high goals looks good at better than even-money.

Thierry Henry is the obvious choice as first goalscorer, but those who fancy Chelsea should check out the odds on Drogba and Terry. Half-time betting is also available on this match and it may be worth remembering that victory went to the side who scored first in only one of the five matches between the teams last season - and on two of the three occasions when there was a half-time leader, the other team went on to win the match.

The draw, as usual, looks a good option in the other big derbies.

Everton v Liverpool has produced a 50 per cent draw rate over the past 10 seasons (10 draws out of 20) and the sides look evenly matched again, while the same percentage has been shown in Villa v Birmingham matches since the latter's return to the Premiership two seasons ago (two draws out of four).

A high draw rate usually equals low goals, so that is another option on both games.

The best bets from the rest of Europe include two solid home teams in Germany - Wolfsburg and Mainz. Wolfsburg have slipped down the table after three straight defeats but they were unlucky at Bayer Leverkusen last week and, if they create as many chances again, they should reinforce their strong home form with victory over Arminia Bielefeld. That match is live on TV tomorrow night.

Mainz, like Wolfsburg, have been let down by their away form, though only against the better home teams. Their own home record is good, with five wins and two draws from seven, and they should account for Nurnberg.

Osasuna look the best bet in Spain as their free-scoring attack has been shut out only once at home this season and they should be too strong for Real Zaragoza, who are winless in five league matches and have managed only three away goals in seven games.

A more speculative choice is Getafe, who are among the strugglers but have built up a decent home record. They rate as a good-value chance against Villarreal, who are a poor away side.

Udinese, who lie third in Serie A, are surprisingly good odds to win at bottom club Atalanta. Udinese are in a rich vein of form, have the joint third-best scoring record away and are unbeaten on the road against bottom-half sides (three wins, two draws). All that adds up to a good bet at odds-against, with the handicap as a safety net.

Best homes: Mainz, Newcastle, Getafe, Osasuna, Wolfsburg.

Best aways: Bolton, Udinese.

High goals: Newcastle v

Portsmouth, Arsenal v Chelsea.

Low goals: Everton v Liverpool,

Aston Villa v Birmingham.


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:

$200 win Mainz, Osasuna, Wolfsburg.

$200 handicap Udinese.

$100 draw Everton v Liverpool, Aston Villa v Birmingham.