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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2009, 12:00am

The next five days bring a series of end games to decide the final teams that will leave or join the lucrative English Premier League and whether Barcelona can wrest the Champions League from Manchester United.

Already crowned champions in their own countries, the stars of United and Barcelona have one piece of business left to deal with in Rome on Wednesday night. The Champions League has its dream final, and the two sides can hardly be separated in the betting, with Barcelona narrow favourites.

Barcelona have been the most exciting team in Europe this season and in full flow it is doubtful if any team could stop them. They have an 'English problem', however, that was evident again in their semi-final triumph over Chelsea. Although they came through, they did not win either leg, which took their record against English teams to four wins, five draws and four defeats since their re-entry to the Champions League in 2004-05 - the record is not as even as it looks, as three of Barca's four wins came after the opposition had been reduced to 10 men.

Two of those games were against United at last season's semi-final stage - after a goalless draw at the Nou Camp, United won the return leg 1-0. United's strong defence and likely cautious game plan point to a low score on Wednesday night, even though Champions League finals tend to produce three goals or more (six of the last 10).

United are bidding to go through the competition undefeated, as they did last season and in their treble-winning year of 1999, and that is a small factor in their favour - in the past 11 seasons, six teams have gone into the final with fewer defeats than their opponents in that season's competition, and every time the team with fewest defeats has come out on top.

Forced to choose between two excellent teams, the selection would be United to win in 90 minutes.

While United and Barcelona rest their stars this weekend, their 'shadow' teams will be the centre of attention in the relegation battles in England and Spain. United visit 17th-placed Hull in tomorrow's pivotal clash in the four-way battle for survival in the Premier League. Likewise for Barcelona as they host Osasuna - just inside the relegation zone in 18th place - on the penultimate weekend of the Spanish league season.

If United and/or Barcelona lose, the other teams involved in the relegation battles will cry foul. And with good reason: United have won all nine previous away matches against teams in the bottom half of the table and would expect to win at Hull too if they had anything riding on the outcome, while Barcelona have won 14 out of 18 at home this season and have won 14 out of 19, home and away, against teams in the bottom half of the table.

Both clubs have 'previous' for underachieving at this stage of the season. Two seasons ago United, already crowned champions, lost 1-0 at home to West Ham on the final day, allowing the Hammers to escape, while in the past four seasons Barca have won only two out of eight when it has come down to the last two games of the season.

Yet, in United's case, fewer people have recalled that, with nothing left to play for on the final day of the 2004/05 season, they won 2-1 at Southampton to condemn the Saints to relegation.

Those contrasting results illustrate the difficulty of making confident predictions this weekend, with events clouded by team selection, conjecture and dubious form lines. But, while it goes against the grain to back a team with nothing to play for, it could be worth banking on West Ham to put the final nail in Middlesbrough's coffin tomorrow.

The Hammers' progress under Gianfranco Zola has gone somewhat unnoticed, but a home record of seven wins out of 10 against the teams below them in the table gives them a good chance against Boro, who have lost their last 11 league games on the road.

On form the other standout bet in the Premier League is Manchester City at home to Bolton. Only neighbours United have won more home games than City, who have taken maximum home points against the teams below them in the table and are finishing the season better than Bolton, who are winless in six.

On Monday, the composition of next season's Premier League will be completed when Sheffield United and Burnley go head to head in the play-off final at Wembley for the one remaining place in the top division. United are better than Burnley on all the key indicators - league position, momentum going into the play-offs and away form - and rate a decent bet.

In nine previous Championship play-off finals where one team ranked best in all three categories, seven have been won by that team. The ability to perform well away from their own ground is especially important - the last 10 finals have been won by the team with better away form.

As good as it gets

Wins out of 11 for both Manchester United and Chelsea away to teams below the top eight: 11


Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, West Ham, Sheffield United.

Best bets

$200 Manchester City (HW, Sun), West Ham (HW, Sun).

Last week

No winning bet out of one.

Form fact

Middlesbrough, who need nothing less than a win to have any hope of survival, have lost eight of their 10 Premier League visits to West Ham, scoring just two goals and winning only once.


All 11pm (HK time) tomorrow

Arsenal v Stoke, Aston Villa v Newcastle, Blackburn v West Brom, Fulham v Everton, Hull City v Manchester Utd, Liverpool v Tottenham, Manchester City v Bolton, Sunderland v Chelsea, West Ham v Middlesbrough, Wigan v Portsmouth.