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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2007, 12:00am

This weekend's English Premier League programme offers an ideal opportunity to assess whether it really is becoming a league of two halves. All 10 games feature a match-up between a team from the top half of the table against a bottom-half team, and more pertinently six of the games feature a foreign-owned top-half club against a British-owned bottom-half club.

The mismatches could hardly be starker. Leaders Arsenal host second-bottom Wigan, champions Manchester United visit third-bottom Bolton and bottom club Derby host fourth-placed Chelsea. It is difficult to see an upset in those matches.

Arsenal are ruthless at home to struggling teams, with a very high win rate under Arsene Wenger and most of those wins by wide margins. Already this season they have beaten Derby 5-0 and Bolton 2-0, and against all teams that have finished in the bottom six they have won almost 60 per cent of their home games by two or more goals.

United have never lost at Bolton in eight Premier League visits (five wins, three draws) - six of those matches have had over 2.5 goals, with three of United's wins coming by wide margins (4-0, twice, and 6-0).

Over 2.5 goals is attractively priced at 1.80 on the HiLo. Bolton, whose next two away trips are to Liverpool and Manchester City, need to start collecting points at home but they will find that difficult against United.

Derby are in big trouble and they are unlikely to find any respite against Chelsea, whose away win percentage against bottom-half teams is remarkable, never mind the fact that Derby will do well to climb off the bottom.

Before this season Chelsea had won 30 out of 40 (75 per cent) away to teams that went on to finish in the bottom half of the table in the past four seasons, and so far this season they have won four out of four against bottom-half teams Reading, Middlesbrough, Bolton and Wigan.

The two most competitive matches of the weekend appear to be Newcastle v Liverpool and West Ham v Tottenham, not least because Newcastle and Tottenham remain the teams most likely to climb out of the bottom half.

Newcastle v Liverpool has produced four wins apiece (and two draws) in the past 10 seasons, but in recent years the balance of power has shifted towards Newcastle, who have taken three wins and a draw from the last five meetings.

Newcastle had a horror show in their last home game, when they conceded three goals in the first 11 minutes and lost 4-1 to Portsmouth, but before that they had won four and drawn one of their first five home matches.

This is another serious road test for Liverpool, though there is nothing wrong with their away form this season.

They have won four out of six, with two draws, even though four of those games have been against current top-half sides. Already they have 14 away points, after falling way short of championship standard by taking only 22 points from 19 road games last season.

Liverpool have the edge, but it is not as clear-cut as the odds suggest, and it would not be a surprise if they failed to win at St James' Park again.

Tottenham, like Liverpool, started this season needing to improve their away record to have any hope of mounting a stronger challenge near the top of the table, but they haven't managed it so far. Their first away game under Juande Ramos was a 1-1 at Middlesbrough - a result typical of their recent away problems. They took the lead but failed to hold on - their third draw in three away games where they have scored first this season.

Even on their short trips across London, Tottenham don't perform well. Their one London derby on the road this season was at Fulham, where they had to settle for a 3-3 draw after leading 2-0 and 3-1. In 25 London derbies away in the last five seasons, Tottenham have lost 15 and won only five.

Tottenham did the double over West Ham last season, but the Hammers were struggling then, whereas now they are seven points ahead of Tottenham. The visitors will need to raise their game to win, with the draw a distinct possibility.

Best-value bets in the Premiership are Aston Villa at Middlesbrough and Blackburn at Fulham. Villa are a slightly frustrating away team, as they have the potential to win more often, but their low defeat rate continues to make them a solid handicap chance. Villa have lost only five out of 20 away to non-big four sides under Martin O'Neill, and the best of their wins was 3-1 at Boro last season.

Blackburn have a similarly good record away to non-big four sides, with only two defeats out of 12 and seven wins in 2007, and they have a good chance at Fulham.

Portsmouth are another high-flying team with a good away chance at Birmingham. Portsmouth's only away defeats this season have been at Arsenal and Chelsea, with four wins out of five in their other away games. All Birmingham's home points have come against teams below them in the table.

Hard habit to break

Points out of a possible 24 for Birmingham against teams above them in the Premier League: 1

Late horror show

Tottenham have lost five away points this season to goals conceded after this many minutes: 90

Real deal

Wins in 25 home games under Victor Fernandez for Real Zaragoza, who are a good bet at home to Getafe: 16

Roma on the road

Wins out of six on the road for Roma, who can confirm their ranking as Italy's best away side against Genoa: 4

FORM FACT:

Three teams in Europe's top five leagues still have a 100 per cent home record - Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona. City and Barcelona rate home bankers tonight

Doing it the Leeds way

Points by which Leeds would be leading League One without their points deduction: 13

SHORTLIST:

Frankfurt, Zaragoza, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Ipswich, Coventry, Oldham, Yeovil, Doncaster, Schalke, Roma.

BEST BETS:

$150 Ipswich (handicap, Sat), Aston Villa (handicap, Sat), Coventry (handicap, Sat), Roma (AW, Sat), Blackburn (handicap, Sun), Real Zaragoza (HW, Sun).

 

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