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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 August, 2008, 12:00am

Nine of the 10 games on the opening weekend of the Premier League produced a winner - the highest total of first-day winners since the league was inaugurated in 1992-93.

And most of those winning teams will be worth following this weekend, as well as in the longer term. In the past five seasons, there have been 34 first-day winners and only six have lost on match day two, which indicates the teams with three points on the board already are the ones to concentrate this time.

Several are in opposition, but first-day home winners Arsenal, Bolton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Chelsea go on their travels against teams that lost on the opening weekend. In that scenario, first-day winners have lost only two games out of 12 in the past five seasons.

Chelsea and Arsenal are predictably short odds after their opening wins, and punters will be looking for Bolton, Villa and West Ham to provide some value. On longer-term form ratings, though, Bolton and West Ham will find it difficult to win at Newcastle and Manchester City respectively, so the pick would be Villa in the West Midlands derby at promoted Stoke.

Villa have a solid record on the road against teams from outside the big four, losing only seven out of 30 under Martin O'Neill. That record has been improving steadily, with nine wins, eight draws and just three defeats from their last 20 road games against teams from outside the big four, but the question mark is whether their win rate is good enough to justify odds-on.

Looking further down the line, teams that make a good start tend to do well over the course of the whole season. In the past five seasons, 24 of the 34 first-day winners have gone on to achieve a top-10 placing at the end of the season.

Even if we exclude the big four teams from that sample, 13 out of 21 first-day winners have ended up with a top-10 placing and only four have finished in the bottom seven, which basically denotes the teams involved in the relegation battle. The last first-day winner to be relegated was Derby in the 2001-02 season, so promoted Hull's 2-1 opening home win over Fulham was a signal that they could defy expectations and avoid the drop.

The only match that failed to produce a winner last weekend was Manchester United's home 1-1 against Newcastle, which meant that the reigning champions lost ground immediately on title rivals Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Undoubtedly the most impressive winners were Chelsea, who romped to a 4-0 win over FA Cup winners Portsmouth.

It was no surprise that Chelsea won - their Premier League record against Portsmouth now reads 12 wins and one draw from 13 meetings, home and away - but the stylish manner of victory was an important marker in Luiz Felipe Scolari's first game in charge.

Winning more home games may hold the key to Chelsea's title chance (last season they trailed United by nine points on home form), and a more attacking philosophy should help them to do that, as well as satisfying owner Roman Abramovich's ambition for Chelsea to rival United for entertainment as well as trophies.

It is also vital for Chelsea to capitalise on Cristiano Ronaldo's absence from the United team. United are clearly in some difficulty without their talisman, and last week's draw means that their win rate has dropped to 50 per cent in league games since the start of last season when Ronaldo has not been in the starting line-up.

The difference that Ronaldo makes to United is perhaps more starkly illustrated by their scoring figures with and without him. United have scored more than once in just two out of eight league games without Ronaldo in the starting 11 since the start of last season, whereas they have scored two or more goals 20 times out of 31 when Ronaldo has started.

While Newcastle played well last week, it was difficult to escape the feeling that Ronaldo would have made the difference for United. Last season United won 6-0 and 5-1 in their two league matches against Newcastle, with a rampant Ronaldo scoring five of the 11 goals.

United have been spared one Premier League match without Ronaldo (their home game against Fulham has been postponed to fit in the Uefa Super Cup against Zenit St Petersburg on August 29), but their next three league games are away and they get progressively tougher - Portsmouth on Monday, Liverpool on September 13 and Chelsea on September 21. Ronaldo is expected back by early October, but by then United may be trailing Chelsea by a potentially significant margin. No wonder, then, that Chelsea have already taken over as favourites to lift the title, with the HKJC offering 2.30 on the Blues and 2.60 for United.

The title race may be a marathon, and United did recover from a slow start last season, but at this stage pace-setting Chelsea look a good bet in the title market.

Shortlist: Stuttgart, Tottenham, Cardiff, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday, Paris Saint Germain

Best bets: $100 Stuttgart (HW, Sat), Paris Saint Germain (handicap, Sat). Last week: no winning bets out of two

FORM FACT: Ten of Arsenal's 14 Premier League games against Fulham have had over 2.5 goals, including the last six

Don't go behind

Matches without a victory for Tottenham Hotspur after conceding first: 18

Mixed fortunes

Of the three Premier League clubs under new management that made a winning start - Chelsea and Blackburn: 2

Premier League fixtures

Today: Blackburn Rovers v Hull City, Liverpool v Middlesbrough, Newcastle United v Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City v Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion v Everton, Fulham v Arsenal

Tomorrow: Wigan Athletic v Chelsea, Manchester City v West Ham United

Monday: Portsmouth v Manchester United