Blues line up Pompey victims
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Chelsea's style leads to more clear-cut wins against teams from bottom-half
Chelsea are turning the English Premiership race into a procession, and there is little prospect of a halt to their progress when they host Portsmouth tonight.
Jose Mourinho's team are looking increasingly likely to make a significant mark in the record books. Within their sights are the Premiership bests for total points (Chelsea are on target for 95, which would even beat the 92 set by Manchester United over 42 games in 1993-94) and for defence. The latter record stands at 26 goals conceded, by Arsenal last season, but Chelsea could cut it in half if they maintain the same standards over the last 15 games.
Arsenal would finish runners-up on 79 at their current rate, which would leave Chelsea two short of the record winning margin of 18 points, set by Manchester United in the 1999-2000 season.
The important statistic for tonight's match is Chelsea's record against bottom-half teams such as Portsmouth. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Chelsea's style leads to low-scoring games against the better sides (their 13 games against top-half teams have produced three 0-0s, six 1-0s and two 2-0s) but more clear-cut wins against bottom-half teams.
In such matches they have won by two goals or more on seven out of 10 occasions - they have won four out of five at home, by margins of one, four, four and four. All of their home games against bottom-half opposition have featured three goals or more.
The odds are hardly generous even for a two-goal Chelsea win on the handicap HAD, so high goals looks the best way of backing the champions-elect tonight. Another significant factor in that equation is the name of Amdy Faye, which will not appear on the Portsmouth team sheet even if his expected move to Newcastle has not been completed - as he is suspended.
Portsmouth's dismal away record has been well documented, but Faye's impact on that record is less well known - when the Senegalese midfielder hasn't played, Portsmouth have lost seven out of seven, but the figures are much more respectable with Faye in the team (four wins and nine draws from 23). Without Faye, Portsmouth will struggle to contain teams in away games.
There are few Premiership players whose importance to their team can be pinpointed so clearly, but a team comprised of such players might read: Hislop (Portsmouth), Ferdinand (Man Utd), Terry (Chelsea), Stubbs (Everton), Campbell (Arsenal), Keane (United), McCann (Aston Villa), Savage (Birmingham), Faye, Van Nistelrooy (United), Beattie (Southampton).
In recent seasons there has been a measurable downturn in their teams' performance when one of those players is missing and it usually pays to be wary if they are rested, injured or suspended. It is going to be interesting to monitor how Birmingham and Southampton manage without Robbie Savage and James Beattie respectively now that they have been transferred.
With McCann on the long-term injury list at Villa, they are also a side to put on the 'beware' list. David O'Leary's team averaged 1.47 points last season, but the figure was 1.61 with McCann in the side and just 1.1 in the 10 games he missed.
Villa were defeated in half of those missed games, but lost only seven in 28 (25 per cent) with McCann in the side last season. McCann has been carrying a knee injury for most of this season but still Villa have lost only six of 20 league games (30 per cent) with him in the team; without him, they have lost two out of three. It is particularly difficult to see Villa improving their poor away record unless McCann makes a quick recovery.
Villa could hardly have a tougher place to visit without McCann than Old Trafford, so Manchester United are another of the big guns to consider backing on the handicap HAD in tonight's live game. They have a great record against Villa and their home form this season has been close to its usual high standard.
For the straight win, the best bet in the Premiership is Everton at home to Charlton. The London side have not impressed on their travels and are likely to struggle against Everton's formidable defence.
The German Bundesliga resumed after its winter break with last night's game between Bayern Munich and Hamburg, and the action continues with tonight's live clash between second-placed Schalke and reigning champions Werder Bremen. Werder have a good recent record in this fixture and look decent odds for the win.
At the other end of the table, second-bottom Rostock are looking for their first win of the season against Freiburg, who prop up the table. Most punters will want to avoid such a poor-quality match, but Rostock may be a better bet than they appear. They have managed just a solitary draw from nine home matches, but most of those games have been against the best-quality sides and their away form (just two defeats out of eight) is a better guide to their ability against more average teams.
Rostock have been more solid since Jorg 'The Fireman' Berger took charge, with three draws and just one defeat by Bayer Leverkusen, and this is a good chance to show they have turned the corner.
It might pay to be cautious with the Bundesliga until the form settles down again, but Hertha Berlin appeal as a solid away bet against Bochum. Hertha have emerged as Germany's best away side, with victories over top home teams such as Schalke and Wolfsburg, while Bochum's season has disintegrated after a bright start.
Lecce have been on the slide in Italy's Serie A - mainly because of a tough run of games - but they should get back to winning ways in their home game against bottom club Atalanta. Lecce's open style of play tends to leave them exposed against the better teams, but they possess much more firepower than Atalanta's weak attack.
Spain's big two, Barcelona and Real Madrid, have easy home matches against Racing Santander and Mallorca respectively, so the most interesting Primera Liga game is tomorrow night's live clash between in-form Villarreal and Valencia, who have developed a close rivalry in recent years.
Bilbao could not break down Espanyol's stubborn defence last week, but they are worth another shot against Osasuna. Bilbao are formidable at home, while Osasuna have lost all five games against top-half opponents this season.
Best homes: Rostock, Everton, Bilbao, Lecce.
Best aways: Tottenham, Hertha Berlin.
High goals: Monchengladbach v Bielefeld, Chelsea v Portsmouth.
Low goals: Birmingham v Fulham, Blackburn v Bolton.
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 Rostock, Everton, Bilbao, Lecce.
$200 low goals Birmingham v Fulham.