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  • Nov 28, 2014
  • Updated: 5:40am

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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

Two of Manchester United's north-west neighbours, and one of their former players, have supporting roles tonight in the final act of the dramatic Premier League title race.

Chelsea host Bolton needing to better United's result at Wigan, who are managed by former United stalwart Steve Bruce. Avram Grant has become something of a conspiracy theorist in recent weeks as the tension has mounted, though nobody can know whether local rivalry or favouritism for one team will have any bearing on the title outcome.

What points to the status quo being maintained at the top of the table is the fact that Wigan are safe and Bolton almost certainly so after both teams won last weekend. There have been nine Premier League games so far this season where only one team have had something to play for, and that team's record is won seven, drawn one, lost one (the two failures to win were both by relegation-threatened teams).

In any case, United and Chelsea are always strongly favoured against opponents from the bottom half of the table, home or away.

Chelsea have the stronger form chance tonight, as they are unbeaten in 81 home league games and have won 36 out of 44 against bottom-half teams during that run. Bolton, meanwhile, have taken only one point from nine trips to top-half teams this season.

On form United are heavily favoured at Wigan, who have lost 20 out of 23 in all games against Big Four teams since joining the Premier League in 2005-06, with only one point from 11 at home. United have won all five league matches against Wigan, scoring at least two goals each time, as well as beating them 4-0 in the 2006 League Cup final.

The biggest handicap to a United victory might have been the poor state of the pitch at the JJB stadium, where Wigan are undefeated in seven games, but Wigan are confident they will have the pitch in good condition today. Four of the top six have won there this season (the exception was Arsenal's 0-0 in March when the pitch was at its worst) and it would be a shock if United failed to win.

It could get interesting if United fall behind, however, as they have won only two out of eight in the league this season when conceding the first goal. They have trailed in their last three away league games, conceding first in the last two, which is a worrying trend, as they have won only one of five on the road this season when the opposition has scored first.

Final-day relegation deciders are more commonplace in the Premier League and more prone to decisive changes in position than the battles at the top, so it is all to play for as Fulham, Reading and Birmingham try to secure the last survival spot.

The relegation issue has gone to the wire in seven of the past 10 seasons, and on four occasions a team have dragged themselves out of the relegation zone to grab survival on the final day.

Last season, for instance, Wigan were three points from safety at the start of play on the final day and needed to win at Sheffield United to stay up. They duly did and, with West Ham also winning, Sheffield United dropped from 16th to 18th and were relegated.

Two seasons before that, the bottom four teams went into the final day separated by just two points but the only team to win were West Brom, who climbed off the bottom to claim the last survival spot.

Those examples should provide some optimism for Birmingham and Reading as they attempt to climb above Fulham. All three teams have reason for hope: Fulham have won their past two on the road and there is a widespread belief that Portsmouth have their minds on next week's FA Cup final; Reading are away to Derby, the worst team in Premier League history; while Birmingham are the only team at home, to Blackburn.

Most casual observers tend to believe that relegation-threatened teams will win when the chips are down, but that flies in the face of logic: Fulham, Reading and Birmingham have won only 23 out of 111 games between them this season, so it is fanciful to expect all three to win now.

In the past 10 seasons, 17 teams have gone into the final day with the threat of relegation hanging over them and only six have won. Four of those wins came in home games, which gives Birmingham a nominal advantage, though the two away wins were those by Wigan and West Ham last season.

One of the talking points in this week's build-up has been whether FA Cup finalists Portsmouth will be fully committed at home to Fulham, with their Wembley date only six days away.

The speculation has been fuelled by Portsmouth's failure to win in their past four games, but the theory does not really pass the test: in the past 10 seasons, FA Cup finalists have lost only five out of 20 between them in the match immediately before the final, winning 11.

On the figures, Reading have the easiest task at Derby and therefore the best chance of survival.

United on target

Goals scored in the five Premier League meetings between Manchester United and Wigan, with United scoring 16: 19

Chelsea conquerors

Defeats by two or more goals for Bolton in seven visits to the top eight sides, pointing to a clear-cut win for Chelsea: 7

Fulham full steam ahead

Points gained by Fulham in the last six games, compared with five for Birmingham and two for Reading: 10

Reds away

Defeats in 15 away to non-Big Four teams this season for Liverpool, who rate well on the handicap at Tottenham: 2

FORM FACT:

Between them, Manchester United and Chelsea have won 31 out of 38 games against bottom-half teams this season, losing only one (United's 1-0 defeat at Bolton).

Gunners to fire

Consecutive league wins against Sunderland for Arsenal, who can end their season on a high: 6

SHORTLIST:

Reggina, Arsenal, Liverpool, Sevilla.

BEST BETS:

$100 Arsenal (AW), Liverpool (handicap).

Last week: one winning bet out of three

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