with Nick Pulford
The north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham is rarely dull or insignificant and this season's second instalment promises to be as hard-fought as ever, even though both teams are far below the overall standards they expected to reach this season.
In the first meeting at the Emirates in late October, with Harry Redknapp having just taken over in the Tottenham hotseat, the bitter rivals served up one of the games of the season in a 4-4 draw. David Bentley's long-range opener for Tottenham has a strong claim as goal of the season, and there may not be a more dramatic finish than the two late goals scored by the visitors to snatch a point.
That thrilling encounter joined a long list of memorable Arsenal-Tottenham encounters of recent years, with the Gazza FA Cup semi-final of 1991 and Arsenal's 5-4 win at White Hart Lane in 2004 among the other highlights. Ten of the last 15 league derbies have had at least three goals, including all of the last five, which have averaged 4.4 goals per game.
The other notable feature of the recent history of this derby is that Arsenal have proved near-impossible to beat since Arsene Wenger took charge. Wenger's league record against Tottenham is won 12, drawn 12, lost one, with the sole defeat coming almost 10 years ago. Tottenham's only other win over Wenger's Arsenal was 5-1 last season in the Carling Cup semi-final, but usually when it has really mattered, in the league and FA Cup, Arsenal have come out on top.
Tomorrow night's game matters for both sides, for different reasons. Arsenal face a tough battle to retain their accustomed position among the Champions League teams, trailing fourth-placed Aston Villa by five points with almost two-thirds of the season completed.
Tottenham's plight is more desperate, as they are just one point outside the relegation zone in 14th place. After making initial progress under Redknapp, winning five of their first eight league matches at a points average of 2.0, they have won only one of their last eight and their average has plummeted to 0.75 points per game.
On current form Tottenham will have to improve significantly to match Arsenal, whose away record is not too bad even though it's below their usual standard. Their three away defeats have come against teams ranked in the top eight on home form (Tottenham rank 13th) and come into this derby unbeaten in five league games on the road, even though three of those have been against teams in the top six.
Punters will note that the derby factor appears to have influenced the odds, which are good enough to make Arsenal the pick on the handicap to continue their long unbeaten league run against Tottenham.
In Spain, there is another fierce derby this weekend between Sevilla and Real Betis, and again the odds may take a little too much recognition of the local rivalry. For several seasons the fortunes of the two teams followed a similar path and derby draws were common, but in recent years the balance has shifted in favour of Sevilla.
In the past three seasons Sevilla have become established as a top-four team, while Betis have finished no higher than 14th. Nothing has changed this season, with Sevilla currently third and Betis 16th, with a 16-point gap between the teams. Sevilla have won their last four home league derbies against Betis and rate a good bet to stretch that winning run to five.
There are other good bets in Spain, which is unusual in a league that can lay claim to being the most competitive in Europe. Valencia, another team among the established elite, have lost their last four away games but have an excellent chance of getting back to winning ways at third-bottom Osasuna.
The hosts are improving (their only defeats in six games have been against Barcelona and Real Madrid) but they have not registered a victory against a team in the top half of the table in 11 attempts this season and Valencia are the handicap pick.
Malaga, one of the form teams in La Liga, rate a good chance at home to Almeria. Malaga have the best home record outside the top six, with their only two defeats coming against Barcelona and Valencia. They have won six out of seven, with one draw, against teams below them in the table and this looks a difficult trip for Almeria, who have lost seven out of 10 on the road.
Deportivo, too, are flying high on the back of a solid record against teams below them in the table. They have won eight and lost just three out of 14 in that category, which makes them look difficult to beat at bottom club Mallorca.
Sunderland, Birmingham, QPR, Tranmere, Liverpool, Sevilla, Arsenal, Juventus, Fiorentina, Malaga, Deportivo, Atletico Madrid, Palermo, Valencia.
Manchester United suffered only 10 defeats in their last two title-winning seasons, but three were against tomorrow's opponents West Ham, including on both visits to Upton Park.
$200 Sunderland (HW, Sat), QPR (handicap, Sat), Tranmere (HW, Sat), Liverpool (AW, Sat), Sevilla (HW, Sat), Arsenal (handicap, Sun), Juventus (AW, Sun), Malaga (HW, Sun), Deportivo (handicap, Sun), Atletico Madrid (handicap, Sun), Palermo (HW, Sun), Valencia (handicap, Sun).
Manchester City v Middlesbrough
Blackburn Rovers v Aston Villa
Chelsea v Hull City
Everton v Bolton Wanderers
Sunderland v Stoke City
West Bromwich v Newcastle United
Wigan Athletic v Fulham
Portsmouth v Liverpool
Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal
West Ham United v Manchester United