Top dogs could be tripped up
Chelsea, Barcelona and Juventus face tough matches in league 'marathons'
The championship battles in England, Spain and Italy were reignited by last week's results and further fuel could be added to the fire this weekend as all three leaders face daunting opposition.
Chelsea, whose run of eight straight Premiership wins was halted by Manchester City, travel to fourth-placed Everton for tonight's early live match. Then, later tonight, Spanish leaders Barcelona, having suffered their first home defeat of the season, visit Real Zaragoza, where they haven't won in six attempts. And tomorrow night's live action features Juventus, who have seen their Serie A lead cut to two points after two straight defeats, at home to Udinese.
Recent results have lent weight to the old cliche about the championship race being a marathon, not a sprint. Chelsea are nearest the finishing line, holding a nine-point lead with 12 games to go, but they probably won't feel secure until they have negotiated safe passage through their remaining games against Manchester United (away) and Arsenal (home), which are both scheduled over a five-day period in mid-April. With the Champions League also reaching its latter stages at the same time, it promises to be a crunch period for England's big three.
Chelsea, who for the most part have been more fortunate with injuries than United and Arsenal, predictably suffered a loss of creativity last week without Arjen Robben, and they look worth opposing again at Everton without their brilliant winger.
Robben's absence did not stop Chelsea winning six of their opening nine league games this season - including victories over United, Liverpool and Middlesbrough - but their attack certainly stepped up a gear once he entered the fray in October. Their goals-scored average doubles when he is on the pitch, though their rock-solid defence has ensured that there has been only a negligible decrease in the average number of points accumulated when he has been absent.
Chelsea's low goals tally against top-half teams was pointed out here last week - for the record, their away games against such opposition have ended (Chelsea first) 1-0, 0-1, 4-0, 2-2, 1-0 and 2-0. Robben played in only the last four of those games, and he has also played in the only two home games where Chelsea have scored more than once against top-half opposition.
In other words, the probability is that Chelsea won't score more than once against David Moyes' Everton, who lost only 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in November after the deadlock was broken in the 72nd minute by Robben.
Everton are much better at home against top-class opposition - having beaten four of the seven top-half teams to visit so far - and are well equipped to reduce Chelsea's aerial threat at set-pieces, which should restrict the scoring opportunities even further. It is hard to predict an Everton win, given that Chelsea's defence has conceded only eight goals all season, so the draw looks the best pick. Low goals is available at around the same odds as a Chelsea win and that looks a sensible play, whatever your view on the likely match result. A better-value alternative for Chelsea backers is to go for a 1-0 win (without Robben, that scoreline has occurred in three of Chelsea's six games against top-half teams) and save with a 0-0 (which has happened in two of the other three games in which Robben has been absent).
The good news for Chelsea is that Manchester United, now their closest rivals, have an equally difficult task in their big derby at neighbours City. Kevin Keegan's team always looked likely improvers this season, but surprisingly it is their defence that has been the foundation for their climb back into the top half of the table. They have lost only one of their five games against the big three so far (a 1-0 home defeat by Arsenal) and they should keep this game pretty tight too. A draw is always a smart call in derby matches, and this looks no exception.
On a reduced Premiership programme, the most appealing bet is Blackburn at home to Norwich. The visitors have shown commendable spirit in recent matches, but they have been riding their luck and are unlikely to get too much help from Mark Hughes' solid outfit.
It is only a month since Barcelona held a double-figure lead in Spain, but two defeats in their last five games have reduced their advantage to just four points over Real Madrid. The leaders have won 11 out of 11 this season against bottom-half teams and are the most likely winners at 12th-placed Zaragoza, but it would be foolish to underestimate the hosts, who have won seven out of 10 at home in the league as well as three out of three in the Uefa Cup.
Real face a similarly tricky assignment at Osasuna, a fact reflected in identical odds about the two Spanish giants. Osasuna are one place above Zaragoza in the table and have a similar profile - their strength lies at home, and their low league position is a reflection mainly of their away form.
Osasuna and Zaragoza have the best attacks among Spain's bottom-half teams and another indication of the threat they pose is the fact that their home form is almost on a par with that of fifth-placed Villarreal, who have defeated Barcelona and drawn with Real at home this season.
Juventus must be getting nervous at the top of Serie A, with Milan breathing down their necks, but they hold a clearer edge in tomorrow night's clash with Udinese than the table suggests. Juve's long-term home form is top-notch and so is their recent record against Udinese, whose open style of play looks vulnerable against Juve's well-organised unit.
Milan, in fact, may have more problems at ninth-placed Reggina, who have been one of several surprise packages in Serie A this season and have already beaten Juventus at home and drawn with three other top-six sides.
Best homes: Dortmund, Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen, Blackburn, Espanyol.
Best aways: Sampdoria.
High goals: Inter Milan v Roma, Sevilla v Villarreal.
Low goals: Everton v Chelsea, Bolton v Middlesbrough.
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 Dortmund, Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen, Blackburn, Espanyol.