Clash of the Premier League giants a tough puzzle to solve
The top teams in England face off tonight, making it more difficult than usual for punters to rely on form alone
Following the in-form teams has been the route to profit in the English Premiership over the holiday season, but things become more difficult tonight. The top eight are in action against each other, with leaders Chelsea leading the way in their tricky assignment at sixth-placed Liverpool in the early live match.
That's followed by seventh-placed Charlton against Arsenal (second) and Spurs (eighth) against Everton (fourth) in the main batch of live matches, with Middlesbrough (fifth) and Manchester United (third) rounding off the action in the late live game.
All eight of those teams are in the top 10 on December form and, while it doesn't always pay to follow current form on its own, the 'hot' teams have performed very well during the holiday period. December's top-10 form teams won seven and drew one out of eight when faced with out-of-form opponents on Boxing Day, and then won five and drew one out of six in the latest round of matches.
There are fewer such mismatches today - the only qualifiers being Birmingham (sixth on December form) at Newcastle (16th) in the other live game, and Portsmouth (10th) at home to Norwich (14th). For form followers, both will be tempting propositions.
Birmingham, who won 1-0 at Newcastle last season, would cause less of an upset if they were to triumph again today. Newcastle's home form has tailed off badly, mainly because their defence has become so leaky. Only Fulham and West Brom have conceded more goals at home, and almost every team will fancy their chances at Newcastle until Graeme Souness rectifies the problem. He has made a start by signing left-back Celestine Babayaro from Chelsea, but the Nigerian is ineligible for tonight's match.
Birmingham remain founded on solid defence but have discovered a greater goal threat in recent weeks - 15 goals in their last seven games, with only Arsenal and Everton able to shut them out since Crystal Palace beat them 1-0 at St Andrews in late October. Apart from that surprise defeat, only the better teams have been able to beat Birmingham so far this season - their other five losses have come against Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Middlesbrough and Spurs. Birmingham are a solid bet on the handicap to avoid defeat and rate a decent chance for the win too.
Portsmouth are always worth consideration at home and they have an obvious win chance against Norwich, who have proved a poor match for the best teams since their elevation to the Premiership. In 11 games against top-half teams, Norwich have lost eight and drawn three - they are even worse against teams ranked in the top half on home form, with five defeats out of five by an aggregate of 15-1.
Portsmouth might not be in the same class as Chelsea or Liverpool but they are a formidable home side and should overpower Norwich. Like Birmingham, Portsmouth have added another side to their game in recent weeks - in their case, it is greater solidity at the back since Harry Redknapp's departure.
It is early days for Velimir Zajec's regime, but Portsmouth are still scoring at about the same rate as usual but conceding half the number of goals. That combination should prove too much for Norwich, who are the Premiership's joint-lowest scorers on the road.
In the big games, one of the best bets is to back Middlesbrough on the handicap HAD to avoid defeat at home to Manchester United.
The visitors are unbeaten in nine and have powered past Boro in the table, but Steve McLaren knows what it takes to stop United. Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant has managed it once already this season with a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford (despite having to put out a young side as many of his star players were injured) and he is in credit on his overall record against United with four wins and a draw from eight matches. United do not deserve to be such strong favourites based on their away form in 2004 - just eight wins out of 20 in the Premiership, with six draws and six defeats.
Their only away win against a top-half team this season was the 1-0 at Spurs and that came courtesy of a Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty. The Dutchman's continued absence through injury looks a major obstacle to success against Boro as United have scored only three goals in five away league matches without him in the team this season.
Van Nistelrooy's absence is one pointer to a low-scoring match. United are also without the suspended Wayne Rooney, while Middlesbrough striker Mark Viduka is unavailable. Six of McLaren's eight matches in charge of Boro against United have had fewer than three goals, and this looks likely to go the same way.
Low goals also looks a good bet in the Liverpool v Chelsea match. Punters won't get many chances to back Chelsea at odds-against, but they are playing the second-best home side and last season's 2-1 win at Anfield was their first in 12 Premiership visits (nine defeats and two draws before that), so there are reasons for caution.
Jose Mourinho might be happy to play cautiously, in the knowledge that this is one of the trickiest fixtures Chelsea will face in the second half of the league campaign and that a draw would maintain at least a three-point cushion over Arsenal. Chelsea have been low scorers against the better teams and seven of their nine matches against top-half sides have featured fewer than three goals.
Chelsea had to work hard for a 1-0 win over Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in October, which raises doubts about their ability to win this time given Liverpool's much better form at home than on the road. There does not seem much value in backing Liverpool on the handicap, however, as Chelsea still seem the most likely winners.
A Chelsea win would turn up the heat again on Arsenal, who have had the disadvantage of playing later than the leaders on most of the recent matchdays, but so far have coped admirably with that added pressure. Arsene Wenger's team face that familiar situation again, kicking off against Charlton half an hour after the end of Liverpool v Chelsea, and they would be happy with a draw at Anfield as that might be all they can expect from their trip to The Valley.
Arsenal have dominated recent derbies against Charlton, but the hosts are in top form and rate highly enough to have a chance of a point. It is hard to see Charlton winning, however, because they have lost five out of six so far against the teams above them and their current seventh place probably represents the point in the Premiership table where there is the first significant drop in quality.
With so many in-form teams in opposition today, there had to be some match-ups between struggling teams and, sure enough, two games feature the Premiership's four worst teams based on the last eight matches. Bolton v West Brom and Fulham v Crystal Palace are the matches in question and, while most punters will want to avoid them, there might be some value in a bet on Fulham.
Chris Coleman's team have struggled to recapture last season's form, but they have had precious few opportunities against lower-class opposition in recent matches and their form could be worse than it appears. Even taken at face value, a shade of odds-on looks perfectly fair on this season's home form.
Best homes: Fulham, Portsmouth, Tottenham.
Best aways: Birmingham.
High goals: Portsmouth v Norwich.
Low goals: Liverpool v Chelsea, Middlesbrough v Man United.
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 low goals Liverpool v Chelsea.
$200 low goals Middlesbrough v Manchester United.
$200 handicap HAD Middlesbrough.
$200 win Portsmouth.
$200 handicap Tottenham.