Top dogs have plenty of bite
Chelsea and United are among the big guns who will be warming up for Europe by taking on domestic minnows
Another important week of European action, and it should be well worth siding with some of the big guns to make an explosive start in this weekend's league games.
There is a widespread belief that the major European teams let their domestic focus drop ahead of crucial Champions League matches, but results suggest otherwise. The domestic home win rate of these teams before Champions League games is usually in line with expectations and, though there is some variation in the away win rate, it is not significant enough to be regarded as a trend.
Chelsea make particular appeal on the handicap HAD for their visit to struggling Norwich. Having ended talk of a crisis with their impressive Carling Cup final win over Liverpool, Chelsea have a run of fixtures that could seal the Premiership title in a matter of weeks, starting with tonight's live game against the second-bottom club.
There are two sides to Chelsea under Jose Mourinho - the tight, low-scoring side who go into battle against the better teams, and the equally tight, but more free-scoring side who take apart lesser teams. The statistics are compelling - in seven away games against bottom-half teams, Chelsea have scored 14 goals and conceded only two, winning six out of seven (four by a two-goal margin). Moreover, in seven away games against the worst 10 home defences in the Premiership (not necessarily bottom-half teams), Chelsea have scored 19 goals and conceded four, winning six out of seven again (but five by a two-goal margin).
Put those stats together and there is little hope for Norwich. Not only are they near the foot of the table, but they also have the worst home defence in the Premiership. And they have conceded at least two goals (more often three or four) in all seven home games against top-half teams. Norwich's open style is made for Chelsea, who are a solid banker but an even better bet at odds-against on the handicap HAD.
A similar case can be made for Manchester United at Crystal Palace, who have struggled all season against top-half teams (bar the odd good result in London derbies). A slight doubt is raised by Palace's recent battling displays, which might limit the score, but United are probably still worth the chance.
Barcelona also look good for an away win at Osasuna, who are winless in nine league matches since the Spanish winter break and lost 6-1 at home to Malaga last weekend, while Italian leaders AC Milan have an apparently easy task at bottom club Atalanta, though they may be prepared to settle for another 1-0 win.
Some of the Champions League teams face more difficult fixtures this weekend, however. Liverpool and Leverkusen, who resume battle in midweek, both have poor away records and look vulnerable at Newcastle and Hamburg respectively.
Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen - two of Germany's Champions League representatives - square up in tonight's big live game from the Bundesliga.
Werder's odds are an insult, given that they are only four points behind Bayern in the table and are unbeaten in this fixture on their last four visits, though there is some doubt about their ability to beat the better sides this season.
In Italy, Juventus face a tough trip to Roma, who have an outstanding long-term record in this fixture. Again, there is a doubt about Roma's ability to win, but Juve will probably be happy to come away with a point.
The same can be said about Real Madrid, who visit Valencia tonight at the start of a week that will reveal whether their away form is good enough for them to challenge for honours this season. The evidence so far suggests it isn't - only one win out of seven away games against top-half teams in Spain, and just one win from three so far in the Champions League (and that was in an empty stadium against already eliminated Roma). Given such a dismal record, Real look well worth opposing against Valencia and in their midweek Champions League game at Juventus.
Casting the net for other good bets, there is little on offer in the Premiership, where at least five of the 10 matches have a higher than average probability of a draw. These include Newcastle v Liverpool, along with Aston Villa v Middlesbrough, Everton v Blackburn, West Brom v Birmingham and Manchester City v Bolton.
There are reasons for fancying a couple of wins among those games - particularly West Brom at appealing odds against Birmingham - but most of them look very evenly matched.
Mainz are worth chancing at home to Freiburg in the Bundesliga. The hosts have slipped towards the relegation zone since the winter break, but most of their poor form can be attributed to a tough fixture list and this is their first real opportunity to rediscover their good home form of the pre-Christmas period. Freiburg are in much worse shape, judging by their midweek 7-0 home defeat by Bayern Munich in the cup.
Hannover have also had a tough run of fixtures, but their overall form suggests that they easily have the beating of bottom club Hansa Rostock (Hannover won the reverse fixture 3-1) and they should prove the point with a home win tonight.
Spain's best bets are headed by Espanyol, who have won six out of six at home to bottom-half teams and should make it seven against Levante. The visitors have a correspondingly poor record against top-half teams (one point from six games) and have gained all three away wins against sides below them in the table.
Bilbao have had a bad week (knocked out of the Uefa Cup and then beaten in the Primera Liga for the first time in three months) but they should bounce back with a home win over Albacete.
Bilbao have a first-rate home record, whereas Albacete struggle even to score on their visits to the best teams. Atletico Madrid are worth a small wager at home to Sevilla.
The visitors are a good away side on their day, but recent defeats in league and cup suggest they lack the consistency that Atletico have shown at home (eight wins out of 12).
Best homes: Hannover, Mainz, Atletico Madrid, Espanyol, Bilbao.
Best aways: Barcelona, Chelsea.
High goals: Newcastle v Liverpool.
Low goals: Aston Villa v Middlesbrough, West Brom 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.
$200 win Hannover, Espanyol, Bilbao.
$150 win Main.
$150 Chelsea (Handicap HAD).
$100 win Atletico Madrid.