with Nick Pulford
Arsenal face a test of resolve at Everton tonight, having been knocked off the top of the English Premier League for the first time in more than three months when they were held 0-0 at Portsmouth on Boxing Day.
Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp made no secret of his plan to thwart Arsenal by 'getting in their faces' and the same tactic is sure to be used tonight by Everton boss David Moyes in an attempt to play on any uncertainty in the Arsenal ranks. That is not surprising, as there are still question marks over Arsenal's effectiveness on the road against tough, uncompromising teams.
In each of the past two seasons the Gunners have lost five out of 10 against the 10 worst-behaved sides, and have suffered an even more stark eight defeats out of 12 against the six teams that featured in the bad-boy list in both seasons.
This season Arsenal's away record against the current 10 worst-behaved sides is won two, drawn three, lost one. Clearly they have been much tougher to beat, but winning only two out of six indicates that they are far from a safe bet on their trips to the worst-behaved sides.
Everton have fallen into the bad-boy category in recent seasons - they are one of the six teams that featured in the worst-behaved list in each of the last two seasons, and it is noteworthy that they beat Arsenal at home both times. This season, however, Everton have been much better behaved, which arguably increases Arsenal's chance of success.
Everton are likely to revert to their old type tonight, and Moyes certainly knows how to get the better of Arsenal at Goodison Park. Under Moyes, Everton have won three, drawn one and lost only one at home to the Gunners.
Another encouraging factor for Everton is their strong recent form, with 17 points from their last eight games. Only Manchester United can better that tally, courtesy of their late winner at home to Everton last weekend, and Moyes' team have kept pace with Arsenal and Chelsea over the past eight games.
A negative is that Everton have been beaten in both home games against Big Four sides this season - 1-0 by Manchester United and 2-1 by Liverpool - but the derby defeat by Liverpool was harsh and they look capable of holding Arsenal at least. If Arsenal win, it will be another important signpost on the title trail.
Manchester United look a safer bet at West Ham, though the leaders are plenty short enough and for better odds Blackburn and Aston Villa are two of the best away chances of the weekend.
Both teams showed their quality with good away results this week. Villa went close to completing the league double over Chelsea as they fought out a thrilling 4-4 at Stamford Bridge, while Blackburn became the first team to take anything at Manchester City when they pegged back City twice for a 2-2 draw.
Villa and Blackburn both take a considerable drop in class for their respective trips to Wigan and Derby.
The struggling hosts have shown renewed signs of life in recent games, but still they have won only five times from 38 attempts between them this season, losing 25 times, and they will have to improve again to hold off Villa and Blackburn, the pair having been two of the best away sides in the Premier League so far in 2007.
Blackburn are narrowly the pick of the pair for their trip to Derby. In 2007 Mark Hughes' team have won six out of 10 away to teams that either finished in the bottom half of the table last season or are in the bottom half this season, and Derby are the worst side they have faced on their travels.
The form team in the English Championship are Crystal Palace, who are involved in one of the most intriguing matches in that division when they travel to Sheffield United.
The hosts were managed in the Premier League last season by Neil Warnock, who then left United before returning to management with Palace in October.
Warnock has dragged Palace up to ninth in the table and if they continue to progress they should be in the play-offs at least. Warnock started with two defeats in his first three games, against current top-three sides Watford and Stoke, but since then Palace have been undefeated in 11 and notably have started to turn draws into wins, with six victories in their last eight games.
Palace are a team to follow in the second half of the season and they look a decent handicap chance against Sheffield United.
While Sheffield United have failed to make a concerted promotion push following their relegation from the Premier League last season, the other two relegated sides - Watford and Charlton Athletic - are both challenging strongly for a quick return to the promised land.
Both teams are strongest on the road, and tonight Charlton rate one of the better bets when they travel to Leicester. The hosts have played seven of the top 12 away sides and have beaten only one of them, losing four. Charlton rank third on away form and are a solid handicap chance.
Scared of heights
Derby's goals scored against current top-half teams, with 31 conceded. Blackburn look too strong for the Rams: 4
Away games without a win for Fulham, who face a crucial relegation clash at Birmingham tonight: 26
Nice to see you
Games without defeat since promotion for Portsmouth against Middlesbrough, including three wins out of four at home: 8
Southampton's away goals conceded is the second-highest in the Championship and they look vulnerable at Barnsley, who won the reverse fixture 3-2: 25
Manchester United's 1-0 defeat at West Ham last season was their first in 12 Premier League visits to Upton Park, but seven of the previous 11 were draws and United have won by more than a goal in only two of the 12 games.
Defeat in nine away games for Charlton against teams below them in the table. They rate a solid handicap chance at Leicester: 1
Shortlist: Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Barnsley, Charlton, Swindon, Carlisle, Leeds, Blackburn.
$150 Barnsley (HW, Sat), Charlton (handicap, Sat), Swindon (handicap, Sat), Carlisle (handicap, Sat), Blackburn (AW, Sun).
Last week: five winning bets out of six.
Birmingham v Fulham
Chelsea v Newcastle
Everton v Arsenal
Portsmouth v Middlesbrough
Sunderland v Bolton
Tottenham v Reading
West Ham v Manchester Utd
Wigan v Aston Villa
Derby v Blackburn
Manchester City v Liverpool