You Bet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 September, 2008, 12:00am

Cristiano Ronaldo couldn't make the difference for Manchester United during his cameo appearance in their midweek Champions League tie, and one of the big issues surrounding tomorrow's crunch Premier League game against Chelsea is whether he will be named in United's starting line-up.

Sir Alex Ferguson indicated that the Portuguese star was more likely to be on the bench again, but the United manager must be tempted to think again given Ronaldo's importance to the team.

Ronaldo had less than half an hour to make his mark on his return from injury on Wednesday night and, in common with his teammates, he was unable to break down Villarreal's well-organised defence as the game ended 0-0.

He may not be quite ready yet, but what United clearly need is Ronaldo fully fit and back in the starting line-up. In six games in all competitions this season, United have scored only four goals and won just once - 1-0 away to Portsmouth in their second Premier League of the campaign.

Ronaldo's presence has a dramatic impact on United's scoring figures, and therefore their win rate. United have scored more than once in just two out of 10 Premier 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.

United had a similarly sluggish start to last season. With Ronaldo on the sidelines for a month, they lost 1-0 at neighbours Manchester City and then scraped 1-0 home wins over Tottenham and Sunderland. When Ronaldo returned in mid-September, however, he was the catalyst for a remarkable run of 16 wins and one draw (away to Arsenal, who scored a last-minute equaliser) in the first 17 games he started.

Ferguson admitted it would be 'a big ask' for Ronaldo to make his first start of this season in tomorrow's showdown at Stamford Bridge, and even when he is fully fit there are still doubts over the flying winger's effectiveness in the biggest games.

Ronaldo scored with a header in the Champions League final against Chelsea in May, yet that was his first goal in 13 matches against the Blues. In all, his record in matches involving England's big four is played 32, scored six, and that's a poor return for a player who was the Premier League's top scorer last season and runner-up the season before.

Ronaldo's relative impotence in big games, coupled with United's scoring problems when he is not on top form, tilts the balance firmly in Chelsea's favour tomorrow night.

Chelsea, of course, are defending their superb unbeaten run in Premier League games at Stamford Bridge - 84 matches and counting - and their record against big four visitors during that run is won eight, drawn four, including three wins and a draw against United.

In the same period as Chelsea's unbeaten home run, United have played 14 away games against the big four, with just four wins. Three of the wins were against Liverpool, the weakest member of the big four, and last weekend United came undone at Anfield, so it is asking a lot for them to bounce back against opponents with a much better record against them.

Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, the Blues' record in all games against United is won six, drawn seven and lost two (90 minutes' play), and at home they have won four and drawn two out of six. The best chance for United is to keep a clean sheet, in light of their own scoring problems and the fact that Chelsea have won eight out of nine when scoring against the big four during their long unbeaten home run. Overall, Chelsea's win rate at home during that run is 78 per cent when scoring, while United have lost three out of four (with one draw) when conceding away to the big four during their last two title-winning seasons.

Most of the figures point to Chelsea, who have scored in every game under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Punters should be aware, however, that Chelsea were available at 2.25 when they beat United 2-1 in last season's equivalent fixture in April and on my ratings 2.25 is the true odds, so 2.12 for a Chelsea win looks a little short.

For the best weekend bets, the advice is to follow two of Europe's resurgent big names. Valencia have started well under new coach Unai Emery, with an unbeaten opening to the league campaign followed by a 1-0 away win in the Uefa Cup first round. They have scored three goals in both of their home games so far, beating Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup and Mallorca in the league, and should maintain that form at home to Osasuna.

Eric Gerets is approaching his first anniversary as Marseille coach and, despite their midweek defeat by Liverpool in the Champions League, he has made them a strong home team. They have won 13 out of 17 home league games under Gerets and should bounce back at home to Monaco, who have lost their last five meetings with Marseille.

Getting Hammered

Meetings since Newcastle's last defeat by West Ham, going back to a 3-0 home win for the Hammers in September 2001: 9

City rule

Years since Man City lost at home to Portsmouth. In the Premiership, City have won three and drawn two at home: 45


Udinese, Valencia, Marseille.

Best bets

Valencia (HW, Sun), Marseille (HW, Sun).

Last week

Two winning bets out of four.

Form fact

Arsenal have won five and drawn one of their six Premier League games against Bolton in the years before and after Sam Allardyce managed the Trotters. With Allardyce in charge, Bolton lost only four out of 12 league meetings with the Gunners.