Chelsea face tricky away trip
Southampton's improving form under Harry Redknapp sure to test leaders
Punters hoping for a feast of betting opportunities this weekend may well be disappointed. Most of Europe's big teams are very short odds, even by their standards, while there are a host of close-looking matches involving the middle-ranking games.
England's big three line up against teams from the bottom seven of the Premiership, just as they did on the last league programme two weeks ago.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all obliged then, and collectively they rate even higher this time for their respective games against Norwich, Southampton and Blackburn, so there are sure to be plenty of takers on the all-up.
Chelsea look the most vulnerable as they are the only away leg, but they still come out as one-goal favourites despite Southampton's improving form under Harry Redknapp. It is hard to argue with Chelsea's record of seven away wins out of nine against bottom-half teams and any hope of an upset is reduced by Southampton's recent 4-0 capitulation at home to Manchester United in the FA Cup. Southampton have lost only two out of 15 at home in the league, however, and this remains a potential deal-breaker for all-up punters.
Better value, as usual, should be available elsewhere in the Premiership, but this is a tricky set of fixtures. Four games rate very highly as draw prospects on my figures - Birmingham v Spurs, Charlton v Manchester City, Liverpool v Bolton and Fulham v Portsmouth. That number of draw prospects has been matched or exceeded on only two Premiership weekends so far this season and, while this weekend's games won't all end in stalemates, the likelihood is that the draw rate will be above average.
One of the games we are left with is Newcastle v Aston Villa, which looks a home banker. Villa have slipped into the bottom half of the table, mainly due to poor away form, while Newcastle are heading in the other direction.
The recruitment of Jean-Alain Boumsong and Amdy Faye has added solidity to Newcastle, and the return of Alan Shearer (eight goals in 14 matches) has helped them turn chances into goals. Until six weeks ago, they hadn't beaten a top-half side this season, but they have scored four such wins in a row at home and are clearly on a roll.
Good-value betting opportunities are thin on the ground in the other European leagues, where struggling sides provide the opposition for title contenders in Germany (Schalke v Nurnberg), Italy (Milan v Brescia and Fiorentina v Juventus) and Spain (Albacete v Real Madrid).
The big game in Spain is tomorrow's live clash between leaders Barcelona and third-placed Real Betis. It may not be as close as the table suggests, however - Barca are 20 points better than their rivals from Seville.
The biggest doubt about Barcelona is that their goals have dried up - they have scored only seven in their last six league games - but they have been solid at the back (just one conceded). Carles Puyol is injured, however, and Barca look too short to be a safe bet.
Better bets in Spain include Villarreal, whose home record remains outstanding (10 wins out of 14, with only eight goals conceded). Bilbao, their opponents, have shown signs of improvement on the road, but their overall away form is below average.
Atletico Madrid look another home banker against Mallorca, who have taken only nine points out of a possible 45 on the road (most against fellow strugglers).
Malaga have hauled themselves above the relegation zone under Antonio Tapia, with four wins out of six at home (their only defeat coming against Betis), and they look too strong for Getafe. The visitors have had some good results in recent weeks, but their general level of form (especially away) suggests Malaga are now a better team.
Deportivo, whose only defeats this season have been against Barcelona and Betis, look the best away option at Levante, who have taken only one point from their last 10 games against top-half teams.
The best bet in Germany is Borussia Monchengladbach, who host Bochum. Monchengladbach have been good enough to beat Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen at home this season and they look a little overpriced against Bochum, who are the second-worst away team in the Bundesliga.
The midweek action features the quarter-finals of the Champions League and the Uefa Cup. Tight games can be expected, with low goals a good call in all four Champions League ties - the most obvious being the two games involving Italian clubs. Juventus visit Liverpool on Tuesday with a great defensive record - nine of their last 10 Champions League away games have featured no more than two goals.
AC Milan and Inter Milan square up for another derby on Wednesday night - the two Serie A meetings this season having produced only one goal in total.
Seven of their last 10 meetings have had less than three goals, including both legs of their European Cup semi-final two years ago, which finished 0-0 and 1-1 (AC Milan winning on away goals). A draw looks a good bet again.
Liverpool have a reasonable chance of victory over Juventus, whose away form is slightly suspect - despite their good defence, they have lost four and drawn three of those last 10 away ties in the Champions League.
The best bet, however, is Lyon at home to PSV Eindhoven. The French champions have won 23 and lost just two of their 33 home league games since the start of last season, and their home form has been just as formidable in the Champions League - six wins and no defeats from nine (the draws coming against teams of the strength of Manchester United,
Bayern Munich and Porto). PSV aren't in that class and Lyon will be a much tougher proposition than Monaco, who were knocked out by the Dutch side in the last round.
Best homes: Newcastle, Villarreal, Malaga, Monchengladbach, Atletico Madrid.
Best aways: Deportivo.
High goals: Zaragoza v Valencia.
Low goals: Southampton v Chelsea, West Brom v Everton.
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 Newcastle, Villarreal, Malaga, Borussia Monchen-gladbach, Atletico Madrid.