Not the time for sitting on defence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2006, 12:00am

Look for plenty of rearguard action in several evenly balanced matches this weekend

The case for the defence will be tested in several Premiership clashes this weekend, and the verdict will hold the key to how bets are placed.

The better defence could decide the outcome in Fulham v Arsenal. The Gunners' rearguard has been under fire all season, yet only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals in the Premiership.

Their biggest weakness is against teams with aerial power, and they could struggle to cope with the strength of Fulham's Brian McBride and Heidar Helguson.

Fulham have a win chance at big odds, but only if they can keep Arsenal's strikers at bay. There is clear hope in the fact that Arsenal have failed to score in eight of their last 10 domestic away games, but then again Fulham have the worst defensive record outside the bottom five.

One of the closest matches on paper is Newcastle against Bolton, where scoring chances might be at a premium. Newcastle's defence has been castigated, but 19 of their 27 league games have had under 2.5 goals - the fourth-highest in the Premiership - and only six teams have a lower figure than Newcastle in the goals-against column.

Newcastle also have one of the Premiership's best records at holding on to a lead. They have won 10 and drawn two of the games in which they have scored first, and when they have scored they have never lost (a record matched only by Chelsea and Tottenham).

It's a hard match to call, but low goals looks a good bet.

Aston Villa v Portsmouth and West Ham v Everton hinge on whether the away defences can keep a clean sheet - at least until their own forwards score.

Everton have gone behind in eight away games and only twice have they come back for a point, while Portsmouth have lost eight of nine away when they have conceded first (the exception was a come-from-behind win at bottom club Sunderland).

Everton will do well to stop West Ham scoring (only Arsenal and Wigan have managed to do so at Upton Park this season) and the Hammers rate as a good win bet.

Villa should win too, though they are less reliable.

Charlton's defence will need to hold firm long enough to frustrate Liverpool's low-scoring attack at Anfield, but the omens aren't good. Alan Curbishley's team have kept three clean sheets away, but two came when they were in top form early in the season and both were against bottom-five sides. Against top-half teams Charlton have conceded at least three goals four times - the only occasion when they didn't was the recent 1-1 at Chelsea.

Manchester City (v Sunderland), Liverpool, Fulham, West Ham and Villa rate as the top home chances, in that order.

Germany's big match is Bayern Munich v Hamburg, and the home side should gain revenge for their 2-0 defeat in the reverse fixture (their only league loss all season).

The most interesting home bet is Eintracht Frankfurt, who have struggled against the better sides but have a good record against lower-ranking teams.

They look a good bet to beat Wolfsburg, who have lost their last seven away.

Dortmund are a home banker against Mainz.

The best away chances are Werder Bremen and Stuttgart, but the handicap is the best option in both cases.

Lille are the best home chance in France, with Lyon top-rated again for an away win at Ajaccio. Nancy are the best handicap bet at Toulouse.

Best homes: Fulham, Liverpool, West Ham, Manchester City, Dortmund, Frankfurt.

Best aways: Stuttgart.

Low goals: Newcastle v Bolton.

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