with Nick Pulford
Bolton parted company with Sammy Lee this week 'by mutual consent' only nine matches into the English Premier League season, but they may not have acted quickly enough to save the club from relegation.
Bolton, along with Derby, are propping up the rest of the division with only five points, and this weekend the Trotters reach the critical 10-match point of the season with a daunting trip to leaders Arsenal. This is the first time in the season when it is possible to make accurate judgments about most of the teams, as the 10-match threshold marks the point at which each team has played more than half their rivals, in most cases representing a fair cross-section of the league.
The final English Premier League table usually bears a close resemblance to the table after 10 matches, and the 10-match table always provides significant clues for punters about teams to watch and teams to avoid.
For Bolton, the outlook is already bleak, unless somehow they can drag themselves out of the bottom three this weekend with a win against the odds at Arsenal. Simply look back to last season's 10-match table, when the bottom three were Charlton, Sheffield United and Watford - the three teams that went on to be relegated.
If Bolton lose at Arsenal, as expected, they will have five points after 10 games, leaving them with a mountain to climb. In the past 10 seasons, 15 teams have had five points or fewer after 10 games and 12 of the 15 have been relegated, with two of the survivors finishing 17th and the other 15th.
Most managers focus on a final total of 40 points as their target for avoiding relegation, but their early aim should be 10 points after 10 games. In the last 10 seasons only six of the 30 relegated sides had reached that figure after 10 games - in fact, 22 of the 30 relegated teams had eight points or fewer, and in most seasons getting beyond eight points after 10 games is usually a good sign that a team will survive.
A crucial factor is the number of teams that have eight points or fewer after 10 games. In seven of the last 10 seasons, at least four teams have been at that level - in four of those seven seasons, the three relegated teams all came from that group, and in the other three seasons the group contained two relegated teams. Going into this crucial weekend, eight teams have eight points or fewer, so the likelihood is the usual four or five will fail to move beyond that mark, and it is from this group that the relegated teams are likely to come.
Bolton and Derby are certain to be in that group, and Fulham will join them unless they can give themselves some breathing space with a home win over Derby. Among struggling teams who will find it difficult to increase their eight-point haul this weekend are Birmingham, who travel to Manchester City, and Middlesbrough, who host Chelsea. Tottenham might have problems too, as they visit Newcastle, though it is inconceivable that they will be among the strugglers for much longer.
As for Bolton, they could be on the receiving end of a hiding from Arsenal tonight. Arsenal's home matches have already been identified as a good bet for over 2.5 goals on the HiLo and they usually do not ease up against struggling teams, with their home games against ultimately relegated teams going over 2.5 goals 21 times out of 30 in the last 10 seasons. Arsenal have won 26 of those 30 matches, without a defeat, and won by two goals or more in 18 of them, so they have a good chance of beating the -1 handicap too.
The best bet in the Premier League is Manchester United away to Aston Villa. United have an excellent record in this fixture, with their last defeat coming in 1995 when Villa's 3-1 win sparked Alan Hansen's famous observation about the youthful United team that 'you don't win anything with kids'.
United, of course, went on to win the Double that season and since then they have been virtually unstoppable on their visits to Villa Park, with eight wins and three draws in the league plus two FA Cup wins.
Villa are improving under Martin O'Neill and beat Chelsea 2-0 at home last month, but that was their first home win over one of the Big Four since 2003/04 and they lost to Liverpool on the opening day of this season.
For a longshot Everton are not bad value in tonight's Merseyside derby as they have beaten Liverpool in two of the last three meetings at Goodison Park and last season took four points off their city rivals without conceding a goal.
The other possible bet in the Premier League is Portsmouth on the handicap at Wigan, though the odds are a little short after Pompey allayed some of the worries about their away form with a 2-0 win at Fulham last time.
France's Ligue 1 is the first major league to have reached the 10-match mark and there are some opportunities to be exploited there this weekend, notably with high-flying Nancy.
Hard to stop
Manchester United's wins in their last 25 away games against teams outside the Big Four: 19
No place like home
Nancy have a run of this many home wins in Ligue 1. Back them to make it nine against Sochaux: 8
Defeats for St Etienne in their last 11 away matches. Another looks on the cards at Toulouse: 9
Away you go
The number of away defeats for both Lille and Bordeaux this season, making them solid chances on the handicap: 0
Life at the Villa
Man Utd have a great record at Villa Park. Their last defeat there was a 3-1 loss in 1995
FORM FACT: Arsenal have won their last 10 home matches against teams from outside London, including a 2-1 victory over Bolton in April, and the last team from outside the capital to beat them at home was Manchester United in February 2005
SHORTLIST: Everton, Toulouse, Nancy, Manchester United, Lille, Bordeaux
BEST BETS: Toulouse (HW), Nancy (HW), Manchester United (AW), Lille (handicap), Bordeaux (handicap) Ham v Sunderland