with Nick Pulford
How good are Liverpool without Fernando Torres? The next month will provide some answers, following the news that the Spain striker has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Torres is expected to miss a minimum of four Premier League games as Liverpool try to hang on to their slender lead in the table, starting with tonight's trip to Blackburn.
Last season there was no question that Torres was a vital contributor to Liverpool. He scored 24 league goals in a sensational first season in English football, with Liverpool winning 62 per cent of the league games in which he started but only 33 per cent when he was absent from the starting line-up.
This season, however, Liverpool are averaging more points per game without Torres in the starting line-up than they are with him leading the attack. If that improvement is real, and not just a mirage, then Liverpool really are serious title contenders.
This season's results are a smaller sample, though, and overall Liverpool's statistics with and without Torres indicate that he is a key influence on team performance.
Liverpool's win rate with Torres starting is 61 per cent since the start of last season, dropping to 53 per cent when he is absent from the starting line-up. The benchmark win rate for aspiring champions is at least 70 per cent nowadays, so clearly Liverpool need Torres fit and firing on all cylinders.
Already they have come up short a couple of times at Anfield, with disappointing goalless draws against Stoke and Fulham despite Torres playing a full part in both games. Those results indicate that Liverpool are still over-reliant on Torres, and that is backed up by the stats.
When Torres has scored in a league game, home or away since the start of last season, Liverpool have won 16 out of 20 and never lost - an 80 per cent win rate at an average of 2.6 points per game. When he hasn't scored or has played no part in the game, however, Liverpool have won only 44 per cent and averaged 1.71 points per game.
Liverpool have won only four out of 10 on the road without Torres in the starting line-up, which raises doubts over their ability to deliver at odds-on against Blackburn tonight. When he has failed to score or has been absent, Liverpool have won nine out of 20 on the road, though this season they have won two out of three.
A major positive for Liverpool tonight is that they have won nine out of 13 away to teams who finished in the bottom half last season or are currently in that zone, though again Torres has been instrumental in that success rate. Seven of those nine wins came from his nine starts in that category, scoring in five.
Liverpool look hard to beat even without Torres and their solid defence always gives them a chance, but the question marks make them no value at tonight's odds.
There could be some value from a more unlikely source, West Ham, when they host Tottenham in the Monday night game. The Hammers are showing signs of improvement under Gianfranco Zola, with no goals conceded in their last three games after failing to keep a clean sheet in their opening 12 games of the season.
Lack of goals is still a problem for Zola, but West Ham have won three out of three at home to teams currently in the bottom half of the table and could step up their revival against Tottenham, whose own resurgence under Harry Redknapp has stalled slightly with two defeats from their last three league games.
On the rest of the Premier League programme, Fulham, Aston Villa and Portsmouth rate good chances on the handicap. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal clearly have strong win chances, fully reflected in their odds.
There are some big clashes in Spain, with four of the top five in opposition. Pick of the bets in those matches is Real Madrid at home to Sevilla. Criticism of Real intensified after last week's 3-1 defeat at Getafe, but still they have taken 16 points out of a possible 18 at home this season and they have an excellent home record against Sevilla, winning nine of the last 10 league meetings.
Even since becoming part of the elite from 2005/06 onwards, Sevilla have had a poor away record against top-four teams, losing eight out of nine.
The top pick in Italy is Atalanta for a home win over Udinese. Since the start of last season Atalanta have won 12 out of 20 at home to teams outside the top four and they have a good chance of victory over Udinese, who have taken only one point from their last five league games.
There are some interesting match-ups in France and at least one away team out of Toulouse, Nice and Le Havre could deliver at big odds. Lyon, though, are the solid pick at Nantes. The perennial champions have failed to score in their last two games, but Nantes are yet to shut out a top-12 team and Lyon have won 10 out of 11 when scoring this season.
Leverkusen, Plymouth, Cheltenham, Colchester, Lyon, Atalanta, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, West Ham.
$200 Plymouth (handicap, Sat), Cheltenham (HW, Sat), Lyon (AW, Sat), Atalanta (HW, Sun), Real Madrid (HW, Sun), West Ham (handicap, Mon). Last week: three winning bets out of four.
Chelsea have equalled the top-flight record of 10 consecutive away wins, set by Tottenham in 1959-60, and victory at Bolton tonight will give them the record.