Blackburn continuing to surprise
Excellent home form should give them the edge over Middlesbrough
The chase for Champions League places is hotting up, with six points covering the teams between fourth and eighth in the English Premiership table.
Three of those teams (Arsenal, Blackburn and Bolton) are at home to bottom-half sides this weekend, giving them the opportunity to crank up the pressure on their rivals by claiming three vital points.
It is London (Spurs, Arsenal and possibly West Ham) v the north-west in the race for Europe, and most observers are surprised at the strength of the challenge from the north-west. Bolton and to a lesser extent Manchester City were proven top-half teams at the start of the campaign, but newly promoted Wigan and resurgent Blackburn have been the season's two surprise packages.
Blackburn's strength is their home record, which includes victories over Manchester United and Arsenal, plus a draw with Tottenham. Chelsea and Liverpool have yet to visit Ewood Park, but they won't be relishing the prospect.
Whichever way you look at Blackburn's home form, it is impressive. Over the season as a whole, they have recorded 13 wins, three draws and two defeats from 18 games in all competitions. But it has improved as the season has progressed - 12 wins out of their last 15, and seven wins out of nine from nine games since their last defeat (against Everton on December 3). Blackburn's high win rate makes them a punter's dream - whether they play at home or away, they rarely draw - and they should be backed again for tomorrow night's game against Middlesbrough. This will be a tough game, but victory would complete a perfect eight wins for Blackburn at home to the Premiership's bottom eight.
It is clear from their Uefa Cup exploits that Boro aren't really a bottom-eight side, and their organisation makes them hard to beat on their travels. But they rested their top players at Charlton last weekend, in readiness for their midweek Uefa Cup tie at Roma, and manager Steve McClaren could do the same this weekend with an eye on next week's FA Cup match against Charlton.
Blackburn rate highly enough to beat even a full-strength Boro, and confidence will be increased if McClaren rests players for the second weekend in a row.
Bolton rate as a home banker against Sunderland, whose tendency to make mistakes could surface again under the sort of pressure that Bolton exert at the Reebok.
Arsenal's revival makes them a strong fancy at home to Charlton, who have lost seven out of eight against the Gunners since their last victory at Highbury in November 2001.
An Arsenal win would put them into fourth place if Tottenham fail to take three points at Birmingham, a result that is far from guaranteed. Spurs haven't stepped up their game in their away matches against struggling teams, which could prove costly at the end of the season unless they can start to rectify that failing at Birmingham.
Manchester City and Wigan, two of the north-west's outside chances for a place in Europe, clash at Eastlands in one of the closest contests of the weekend.
Wigan could be worth backing on the handicap, and so could Aston Villa at Everton, but solid away chances are thin on the ground. The away bankers are Chelsea, who visit ragged Fulham, and Manchester United at West Brom.
Best homes: Arsenal, Blackburn, Bolton.
Best aways: Chelsea, Man Utd.
thousand-dollar wager: $200 win on Blackburn, Frankfurt, Le Mans, Lille and Reggina