One of the talking points in the English Premier League this season has been the congestion from mid-table downwards, with the bottom 11 teams still separated by just eight points with almost two-thirds of the season completed. Now there is a related topic of interest - the vulnerability of the big four teams, with the exception of champions Manchester United.
With 59 points after 25 games, United are bang on course to complete a hat-trick of title successes. Last season, they had 58 points at this stage of the campaign and the season before a slightly higher 60 points. United's continued high standards, however, merely throw into sharper relief the problems being encountered by the other three teams in the English elite. Collectively the big four's points total (206 points) is their joint-worst of the past six seasons at this stage of the campaign, and that's even taking into account the fact that Liverpool are well on course for their best total in Premier League history.
Yet even Liverpool have dropped vital points against some of the lesser teams, and clearly the rest of the Premier League have scented the vulnerability surrounding Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, especially at home. Between them, those three teams have had 10 goalless draws this season, an unusually high figure that reflects a lack of cutting edge as well as a new spirit of competitiveness in the Premier League.
Aston Villa have been the main team to benefit and tonight they face a crucial head-to-head at home to Chelsea. A repeat of last season's 2-0 win in the fixture would put Villa five points ahead of Chelsea with 12 games to play and keep them at least seven points clear of Arsenal.
Like most teams near the top of the table, however, Villa prefer to play on the road, where they get more space and can launch devastating counter-attacks. Martin O'Neill's team are less effective when closed down at Villa Park, where their win rate is 42 per cent this season compared with an exceptional 77 per cent in away games. Villa are the best away team in the Premier League, but Chelsea are close behind with eight wins from 12 games on the road and they are likely to provide stiff opposition as Guus Hiddink takes charge for the first time. Despite their overall improvement under O'Neill and their high placing this season, what hasn't really changed is their low win rate against the big four. Twenty league meetings with the big four under O'Neill have brought nine draws, nine defeats and two wins for Villa, and this season the record is one win (a typically counter-attacking 2-0 at Arsenal), two draws and one defeat (2-0 at Chelsea).
With that record, Villa are hard to back even though Chelsea's odds are too short for a team whose recent form has been so disappointing. Under 2.5 goals (the outcome in six of Villa's 10 home games against big four teams under O'Neill) looks the best bet in a game that might be cagey with so much at stake.
Everton are another team in the top six with better form on the road than at home, and they rate one of the weekend's best bets in the Premier League when they visit Newcastle. David Moyes' team are unbeaten on the road against teams outside the top seven, with seven wins out of eight in that category, and they can take advantage of Newcastle's difficulties.
Seventh-placed Wigan may be the most underrated team in the Premier League right now and they have a good chance at Middlesbrough, who are certainly the most out-of-form team. Boro are winless in their last 14 matches against Premier League opposition, while Wigan have performed well against bottom-half teams with seven wins and just one defeat from 12 games. Strong defence has been a crucial factor for Wigan and they will make it difficult for Boro, who have failed to score in seven of their last nine games against Premier League opposition.
Around the European leagues, a standout bet is Inter Milan away to Bologna in Serie A. Inter lead the table by a commanding nine points after last week's derby win over Milan and perhaps their odds have been influenced by the expectation that Jose Mourinho will have the luxury of resting one or two key players ahead of the midweek Champions League clash with Manchester United.
Even so, Inter should have the measure of Bologna, who have the worst home defence and the joint-highest number of home defeats in Serie A. Inter have won 17 out of 21 under Mourinho when they have scored in Serie A and should win again, unless team changes blunt their attacking edge.
As for the Champions League, Inter face a difficult start against United, who rate as one of the strongest teams in the competition. The group of teams most likely to contain the winner is United, Barcelona, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, and next best are Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Roma and Lyon. Bayern could be a surprise team.
Villa's home win rate is 42% this season compared with an exceptional 77% in away games
Victories from nine north-west derbies this season for Liverpool, with two draws: 7
Home league games without defeat for Aston Villa against Chelsea, though they have won only three: 9
Wigan, Inter Milan, Barnsley, Blackpool, Birmingham, Preston, Colchester, Oldham, QPR, Catania, Everton, Osasuna, Valladolid, Deportivo, Hull.
$200 Wigan (handicap, Sat), Inter Milan (AW, Sat), Birmingham (handicap, Sat), Preston (handicap, Sat), Everton (handicap, Sun), Osasuna (HW, Sun), Valladolid (HW, Sun). Last week one winning bet out of five.
Four of Arsenal's five Premier League defeats this season have come on the weekend immediately before a Champions League tie.
Aston Villa v Chelsea
Arsenal v Sunderland
Bolton Wanderers v West Ham United
Middlesbrough v Wigan Athletic
Stoke City v Portsmouth
Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers
Fulham v West Bromwich Albion
Liverpool v Manchester City
Newcastle United v Everton
Hull City v Tottenham Hotspur