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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am

Anything you can do, we can do better - that could be the rallying cry for Spain's Primera Liga this weekend as Barcelona v Real Madrid takes centre stage. After the lack of spectacle and inspiration of England's 'Grand Slam Sunday', El Clasico is a perfect opportunity to show that La Liga is the most exciting league in Europe.

There was certainly no lack of excitement or inspiration when Barcelona hosted Real at the Nou Camp last season. The match finished 3-3 - three times Real led, with Ruud Van Nistelrooy scoring twice, and three times the precocious Lionel Messi scored to peg them back. Ultimately, Barca's failure to win cost them the title, which was decided on the head-to-head record between the two teams.

The stakes are just as high this time, with Barca trying to close Real's four-point lead at the top of the table. Surprisingly, given their pre-eminent position in Spanish football, it is fairly rare for these two sides to clash when they are the top two in the table, so that adds extra spice to the occasion.

Another rarity with El Clasico is the low number of away wins, given how closely matched the teams usually are. Barca have lost only one of the past 24 at home to Real in La Liga, though that defeat was as recently as 2003-04 - Frank Rijkaard's first season at the Nou Camp. That match took place around this time of the year four years ago, but Barca were in disarray at the time - they were eighth in the table, new signing Ronaldinho was struggling for fitness, and there was a new board in place as well as a new coach.

Soon after losing to Real, Barca turned the corner under Rijkaard and made up a lot of ground to finish second to Valencia in La Liga that season. Along the way they overtook Real, as well as beating them at the Bernabeu, so that defeat at the Nou Camp can almost be dismissed.

It is not quite so easy to dismiss the fact that Barca under Rijkaard have won only one of four home matches against Real, but Barca have won twice at the Bernabeu in that period, so there is no suggestion of an inferiority complex. Samuel Eto'o's return from injury, and his immediate rediscovery of the scoring groove, is a major boost for Barcelona and they have a strong chance to make it 17 wins out of the past 25 at home to their archrivals.

There are big clashes across Europe this weekend, with the Milan derby in Italy and French league leaders Lyon facing a tough test away to second-placed Nancy.

The draw is often a significant factor in big-city derbies, but there have been only five draws out of 20 in the Milan derby in the past 10 seasons, and the away win has been the most common result, occurring in 10 of those 20 matches. That may not be as strange as it appears, given that the two teams share the San Siro, and a more notable factor is that Inter have taken the upper hand in the past two seasons, both in the league and in derby matches.

Inter have won three of the last four derbies, with one defeat, which is a significant turnaround after failing to beat Milan in nine attempts in Serie A and the Champions League in the previous three seasons.

Inter are already 22 points ahead of their city rivals, although Milan have three games in hand after taking time out to win the Club World Championship. Milan's trip to Japan may have taken quite a toll, however, and Inter rate a good bet.

Lyon lead by four points in France but Nancy have a better chance than the odds suggest of narrowing the gap to one point before the Christmas break. Having finished 13th last season, Nancy have been the surprise package in France but second place in the table is merited. They have the best defence, having conceded only 10 goals in 18 games, and that has made them very hard to beat, with just two losses so far, compared with four for Lyon. Nancy look a good bet on the handicap at least.

The big match in the English Premier League is another derby, Arsenal v Tottenham. This is the first north London derby for Spurs coach Juande Ramos and he will be trying to improve on the record of his predecessor Martin Jol, who got close to beating Arsenal but never quite managed to do so, drawing four and losing five of his nine league and cup meetings with the Gunners.

Tottenham have a poor away record in all London derbies - from 26 trips in the last five-and-a-half seasons, they have lost 15 and won only five. Arsenal look too strong on current form.

There is no standout bet on the Premier League programme, but two away teams worth considering at longer odds are Portsmouth and West Ham.

Portsmouth are the more speculative choice at Liverpool, but Harry Redknapp's team deserve plenty of respect for their excellent away record. West Ham have a more obvious chance at Middlesbrough, having won the reverse fixture 3-0 in September.


West Ham, Southend, Nancy, Almeria, Caen, Bordeaux, Sevilla, Inter Milan, Atalanta, Deportivo, Barcelona.BEST BETS:

Best bets: $150 Nancy (handicap, Sat), Caen (HW, Sat), Bordeaux (handicap, Sat), Inter (HW, Sun), Deportivo (handicap, Sun), Barcelona (HW, Sun).

Last week: three winning bets out of six.


Tottenham have led in 12 of their 17 league matches but have won only four, giving up 19 points (the highest total among Premier League teams)

El Clasico has a low number of away wins, and Barca have lost only one of the past 24 at home to Real Madrid in La Liga

Top Gunners

Wins out of 13 (with no defeats) for Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger in home league and cup matches against Tottenham: 10

Travelling well

Points out of a possible 15 for West Ham away to teams currently outside the top eight. : 12

On a roll

Away games without defeat against teams outside Spain's top five for Deportivo, who should win at bottom club Levante: 5

Points win prizes

Points out of the last 33 for in-form French side Caen, who look set for a sixth straight home win against Strasbourg: 24

Nice vintage

Games without defeat for Bordeaux against teams outside France's top six, giving them a first-rate chance at second-bottom Sochaux: 13