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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

Newcastle in 2002-03 were the last team from outside England's big four to reach the lucrative group stage of the Champions League, but this season the big four's stranglehold on those riches is facing its most concerted challenge in years.

The Premier League's top three are safe, but Liverpool are under pressure from at least four teams in an absorbing contest for the fourth and final Champions League place.

Every weekend from now on will be important in that contest, but this weekend has thrown up some particularly fascinating battles. Two of the contenders, Everton and Portsmouth, go head to head at Goodison Park, Liverpool face a tricky north-west derby at relegation fighters Bolton, Aston Villa go to wobbling Arsenal, and Manchester City also have a north-west derby at home to Wigan.

Last week we pointed out the rarity of 50-something managerial appointees going on to win a trophy in England, but qualifying for the Champions League is probably at least the equivalent of winning one of the cup competitions in days of old. And while managers appointed at a senior age do not have a good record of winning trophies in England, trusting in experience has reaped rewards for several of the clubs involved in the battle for the fourth Champions League place.

The newcomers on the scene are Villa, managed by Martin O'Neill, who is 56 today; Portsmouth, whose manager Harry Redknapp also celebrates his birthday this weekend, turning 61 tomorrow; and Manchester City, who have made great strides in their first season under Sven Goran Eriksson, 60 last month.

Those three clubs, however, still have to do some catching up on Everton and Liverpool, who have taken the longer-term view with their managers by appointing them young and giving them time to develop successful squads, though Liverpool have been blown off course somewhat by the turbulence of the American takeover. David Moyes was 38 when he joined Everton and Rafa Benitez was 44 at the time of his appointment at Anfield.

Everton are in pole position in the race for fourth and they have a chance to deal a hammer blow to one of their rivals when they host Pompey tomorrow. This looks a close game, however, as Portsmouth have won eight games on the road (the same number as Everton's home wins) and four of their five away defeats have been against the big four.

In fact, on the run-in, Portsmouth have a significant factor in their favour as they do not have any more games to play against the big four, home or away. Portsmouth are averaging 2.11 points per game against teams outside the big four and if they maintain that average until the end of the season they will finish on 67 points, which could put them very close. Fourth place is likely to go to a team with 68-70 points.

Liverpool might well be back in fourth place before Everton and Portsmouth kick off tomorrow, as their game at Bolton will finish around three-quarters of an hour beforehand. They have a good chance to transfer their recent winning home form to the road against Bolton, who have lost six in a row against top-half teams, a run that started with a 4-0 defeat at Liverpool.

Manchester City should stay in the hunt for fourth place with a home win over Wigan. City's home form appears to have deteriorated (nine straight wins followed by five winless games) but that is due to the effect of a skewed fixture list, which gave them easy opportunities in the first half of the season followed by five straight games against top-half teams. Back against bottom-half opposition tonight, City's chance is better than the odds indicate.

City are another of the European challengers with an easy run-in as they have only three current top-half teams to play in their remaining 11 games. Another factor in their favour, and Villa's, is that they have only the Premier League to focus on, whereas Everton, Liverpool and Portsmouth (at least until next weekend, when they travel to Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-finals) are involved in cup competitions, too.

Two other bets appeal in the Premier League. Chelsea's defeat in the League Cup final drew an almost hysterical reaction in some quarters, but the cold, hard facts of their form under Avram Grant paint a different picture.

On the road they have won eight out of eight this season against teams outside the top seven and they appeal at West Ham, though admittedly the hosts are one of the most underrated teams in the league and still could qualify for Europe. Just ahead of West Ham in the table are Blackburn, who can further their European ambitions and deepen Newcastle's misery when they travel to St James' Park tonight. Blackburn's effectiveness on the road bears repeating - this season they have won five out of seven away to teams in the bottom half of the table.

Magpies grounded

Newcastle's goal difference under Kevin Keegan, with three goals scored and 16 conceded in six games: -13

Believe in Blackburn

Defeats for Blackburn in their last 19 away to teams outside the big four. They rate well on the handicap: 3

Blue heaven

Home wins out of seven against bottom-half teams for Man City: 7

Hornets have a sting

Watford have the most away wins in the top three English leagues and rate a good chance at Burnley: 10


Manchester United, the shortest-priced team on the Premier League list this weekend for their match at Fulham, have won on only three of their nine visits to London since the start of last season


Leeds, Blackburn, Chelsea, Watford, Wolves, Charlton, West Bromwich, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Caen, Liverpool, Genoa, Villarreal, Almeria


$150 Leeds (handicap, Sat), Blackburn (handicap, Sat), Chelsea (AW, Sat), Watford (handicap, Sat), Wolves (handicap, Sat), Charlton (handicap, Sat), Real Madrid (AW, Sat), Caen (handicap, Sat), Liverpool (AW, Sun), Genoa (handicap, Sun), Almeria (HW, Sun). Last week: four winning bets out of seven



Arsenal v Aston Villa

Birmingham City v Tottenham Hotspur

Derby County v Sunderland

Fulham v Manchester United

Middlesbrough v Reading

Newcastle United v Blackburn Rovers

West Ham United v Chelsea

Manchester City v Wigan Athletic


Bolton Wanderers v Liverpool

Everton v Portsmouth