Perils of backing the big names
Odds-makers know that punters will want to back them at almost any price, so they keep them well on the short side
In another round of cracking live matches this weekend involving the big names in European football, Premiership leaders Chelsea go up against Manchester City (the only side to beat them in England this season), first play fourth in Germany's Bundesliga (Bayern Munich v Bayer Leverkusen) and second take on fourth in the Spanish Primera Liga (Real Madrid v Espanyol).
They are all close-looking matches, so what are the cumulative odds about Chelsea, Bayern and Real all winning? A paltry 2.65 is the answer.
If ever there was a prime example of why it doesn't pay to follow the big teams, then this is it. Many punters probably look at the home records of teams such as Real and think they have found a licence to print money, but they are wrong. Real won 68 per cent of their home matches last season, but punters who backed them every time would have incurred a loss.
The odds-makers take no chances with the big teams. They know that punters will want to back them at almost any price, so they keep them well on the short side.
The only way to keep winning on the big teams is for them to rack up unusually long winning sequences - teams like Real, AC Milan, Manchester United, Arsenal and now Chelsea need to win at least 70 per cent of their home games to return an overall profit.
Milan and Arsenal stayed well ahead of that benchmark during last season's championship-winning campaigns, but look at them now - Milan have won six of 11 at home and Arsenal seven of 13 (both around 54 per cent).
Who would have predicted that at the start of the season? And who can predict now whether teams such as Barcelona (91 per cent) and Chelsea (83 per cent) can maintain their amazing home form for the rest of the season? It's not impossible, but the odds are against it happening.
For starters, tomorrow night's clash with Manchester City is unlikely to be a stroll for Chelsea. City have been a soft touch for the big teams in previous years, especially away, but they have tightened up defensively this season and have already secured draws at Manchester United and Arsenal, as well as that 1-0 home win over Chelsea in October.
City needed a questionable penalty then, which raises doubts about their ability to crack Chelsea's tough defence from open play, but equally there remains a question mark about Chelsea's attack.
Their previous home scores against top-half teams are 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0, 2-2 and 2-0 and their away scores in such games are (Chelsea first) 1-0, 0-1, 4-0, 2-2, 1-0 and 2-0.
It is clear that they rely on sound defence first and their attack second against better-class teams and, though it has served them well, it is not a policy that will always succeed.
The likely absence of Arjen Robben will stifle Chelsea's creativity against City, who managed to shut out Jose Mourinho's side in Manchester (a match that came before before Robben burst on to the scene) and are unlikely to approach this task with the inferiority complex that most teams seem to possess against Chelsea. In short, the champions-elect are certainly not a 1.18 chance on this occasion.
Arsenal are available at much more backable odds away to Villa in tonight's late live match, and they look one of the weekend's best bets among the bigger teams. The absence of Sol Campbell is a blow, but perhaps not as big as might be expected (Arsenal have won four out of five on the road without him this season).
Arsene Wenger's side have a 67 per cent win rate away this season, so the odds are not too bad, especially as Villa don't measure up to the form benchmark usually needed to put Arsenal in jeopardy.
The biggest doubt is over Arsenal's capacity to recover from the midweek defeat against Manchester United and it would be understandable if that discouraged some punters, though it is hardly enough to warrant opposing the struggling champions.
The best bets in England are Liverpool at home to Fulham, Bolton and Everton on the handicap at Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively, and Middlesbrough and Norwich for home wins. Norwich's inclusion on the list might raise a few eyebrows, but they should make home advantage count against fellow strugglers West Brom.
Real Madrid, like Chelsea, might struggle to overcome an underrated side when they host Espanyol in Spain's big game. The Barcelona-based side have been the surprise package in the Primera Liga, but they have already beaten Real at home this season and it is no fluke that they lie in fourth place.
They are very strong defensively and should provide a stern examination of Real's home form, which is more patchy than it appears.
The banker bet in Spain is in-form Villarreal, who host struggling Racing Santander tomorrow night. Villarreal have won six of their last eight games - including home wins over Barcelona and Valencia - and should overpower Racing, whose only away points have come against fellow bottom-six teams.
Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich are the other big team whose odds look too short, though visitors Leverkusen have not impressed on the road this season and have a poor record against Bayern (last season's draw was the only point Leverkusen have gained away to Bayern in the past 10 years). Bayern should win, but Leverkusen have the attack to cause plenty of damage if their players click on the day.
Borussia Monchengladbach should pull further clear of the relegation zone with a home win over second-bottom Freiburg. Monchengladbach have a good home record - having beaten Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen this season - and should be too good for Freiburg, who offer little goalscoring threat and have lost six of their last eight away games.
Hertha Berlin, the best away side in Germany, are worth supporting on the handicap at least for their visit to Mainz. Hertha have climbed the table steadily this season, while Mainz made a good start but have slipped to 14th after a run of five straight defeats.
In Italy, Cagliari can continue their sensational home record with victory over Lecce. The islanders have lost only to Milan at home this season (having drawn with Juventus and Inter), but more significant is the fact that they have dropped just one point in their other eight home games. Lecce deserve respect but may pose less of a threat now that star striker Valeri Bojinov has moved to Fiorentina.
Best homes: Middlesbrough, Norwich, Cagliari, Villarreal, Monchengladbach.
Best aways: Bolton, Hertha Berlin.
High goals: Bayern Munich v Leverkusen, Wolfsburg v Werder Bremen.
Low goals: Chelsea v Manchester City, Palermo v Juventus.
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 Middlesbrough, Norwich, Cagliari, Villarreal, Monchengladbach.