Gunners set for goal fest
The record speaks for itself - Arsenal have a 28-6 edge in goals over the past nine games against Middlesbrough
The English Premiership fixture list has a lop-sided look this weekend, with nine of the 10 games pitting top-half teams against opponents from the bottom half of the table.
The exception is Middlesbrough v Arsenal, one of tonight's live games, but even that has a one-sided history.
Arsenal have won the last nine meetings between the clubs (excluding last year's League Cup semi-final, when they put out a second-string side), and most have been by a wide margin. Their last four wins have been 5-3, 4-1, 4-1 and 4-0 and the aggregate score in favour of Arsenal over those nine matches has been 28-6.
It is hard to see a reversal of those statistics by Boro, who are still plagued by injuries to key players. Arsenal's dominance of the fixture is reflected in their odds, but they might be worth a play to win by two goals or more on the handicap.
At the other end of the table, the only match between two bottom-half teams is Blackburn v Southampton. This looks a good opportunity for Blackburn to propel themselves towards safety as they have become a solid unit under Mark Hughes and have a decent record against other teams near the bottom of the table. Southampton broke their away duck last time with a 3-1 win at Middlesbrough, but it could have been a one-off judged against the rest of their dismal away form. Blackburn look a good bet at the odds.
Chelsea and Manchester United appear to have easy tasks against Birmingham and Norwich respectively, but it may pay to be a little cautious before rushing to back them at short odds. Now that the title is almost within Chelsea's grasp, punters will need to pay more attention to Jose Mourinho's squad rotation - knowing that he can afford to drop a few points in the Premiership, will he rest key players this weekend ahead of the midweek Champions League match at Bayern Munich?
United may rate as the 'sure win' bet of the weekend in the Premiership, but the raw figures don't tell the whole story and their away record against bottom-half teams (three wins, four draws and one defeat) hardly makes them banker material at Norwich.
Several of the other relegation candidates are worth opposing for their trips to top-half teams. Bolton, Aston Villa and Everton are all strong home teams, especially faced with lower-class opponents such as Fulham, West Brom and Crystal Palace.
Charlton are one of the best handicap bets for their trip to plummeting Portsmouth, and the trickiest contests to weigh up are those involving mid-table floaters Manchester City and Newcastle United.
The draw rates as a strong possibility in City's home game against Liverpool and is probably a better bet than a handicap play on the visitors, whose away form is still below par.
There must be some doubt over Newcastle's commitment for their trip to Spurs. We know they can fight, at least among themselves, but they may be looking ahead to the big cup battles against Sporting on Thursday and Manchester United next Sunday. In any case, Spurs rate as a decent bet at even-money, given their record of five wins and two draws from seven home games against teams below them in the table.
The biggest game of the weekend is the match known in Spain as El Clasico - Real Madrid v Barcelona, live tomorrow night. Most pundits will portray this as an even match, but long-term form suggests that Barcelona have surged way ahead of their biggest rivals.
Over the course of 2004 Real took 60 points from 37 league games, while Barca accumulated 90 points in 38 games - a remarkable tally put into perspective by the fact that no championship-winning side have exceeded 80 points in a season since La Liga was reduced to 38 games in 1997-98.
Real's 2004 total, meanwhile, was the sort expected of a team chasing a Uefa Cup place.
Barca's brilliant 2004 included two wins over Real - a 2-1 victory at the Bernabeu towards the end of last season followed by an emphatic 3-0 home victory in November - and they have carried their form into 2005. Real, on the other hand, are still failing to win one in every two of their games against top-half opposition.
Anything can happen in a one-off game and, with Real sure to be chasing the win, it should be an exciting live spectacle. Barcelona may well be happy to settle for a draw but, for punters who prefer to play on the big games, their odds will look very appealing - it is surprising that they have been given a start on the handicap, too, and that option makes them a winning bet even if the match ends all-square.
Tonight's Basque derby between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad may not have the same high profile, but it is always a closely fought contest. The draw rate has been high over the long term, but recent results have favoured the home team. Sociedad have lost on their last three visits to San Mames and their mediocre away record (three wins out of 15, all against sides below them in the table) suggests they will struggle again - Bilbao rank as the sixth-best home side in the Primera Liga.
The weekend's live matches in Germany focus on both ends of the Bundesliga table. Third play second tonight as Stuttgart host Schalke, which is previewed inside, but the best bet may lie in tomorrow's relegation battle between Nurnberg and Hansa Rostock.
Nurnberg have been slipping down the table, but a tough fixture list is to blame - seven of their 10 opponents since the winter break have been from the top half of the table. They have won more games than they have lost against bottom-half opponents (home and away) and look overpriced against Rostock, whose recent improvement still leaves them some way behind Nurnberg on overall form.
Best homes: Blackburn, Bolton,
Aston Villa, Everton, Nurnberg.
Best aways: Inter Milan, Barcelona.
High goals: Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle.
Low goals: Aston Villa v West Brom.
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 Blackburn, Bolton, Aston Villa, Everton, Nurnberg.