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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am

Chelsea today make the trip that has brought them the least joy in recent seasons, when they head to Villa Park with the aim of consolidating their lead in the English Premier League.

In the past 10 seasons, Chelsea have won only once at Villa Park, making it their least successful ground. In the same period they have won twice at both Manchester United and Arsenal and three times at Liverpool.

Chelsea came unstuck on their last Premier League away trip, losing 3-1 at Wigan, which leaves them with something to prove as they return to their bogey ground. The doubts were reinforced by a subsequent poor away performance, at Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League, even though they won that match 1-0.

The positive for Chelsea is that their solitary win at Villa Park in the past 10 seasons came on their latest visit in February, when they won 1-0 in Guus Hiddink's first game in charge during his three-month stint with the London club. Before that, however, you had to go back to the 1988-89 season to find Chelsea's last win at Villa, and in the intervening period they had drawn six and lost three of their trips there.

The high number of draws and Chelsea's low win rate at Villa in the past 10 seasons inevitably points to this being a low-scoring fixture - eight of the 10 meetings have had fewer than 2.5 goals. Chelsea have failed to score on three of their last five visits and they will be expecting Villa to make life tough for them again.

Under Martin O'Neill, however, Villa have had difficulty beating the big four. Their only home win in that category was two seasons ago, when they beat Chelsea 2-0, and overall their home record against the big four is won one, drawn five, lost six. Again, there is a low-scoring trend - seven out of 12 have had fewer than 2.5 goals.

On the stats, the draw and fewer than 2.5 goals look the best bets.

Manchester United and Arsenal should have no problems at home to Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City respectively, which leaves Liverpool as the other big-four team in some peril as they visit Sunderland.

Steve Bruce has made a fine start at Sunderland, and his free-scoring side will be optimistic of claiming a big scalp after being denied victory by a stoppage-time own goal at Old Trafford in their last league match. Sunderland led twice in that game and might have held on but for Kieran Richardson's 85th-minute sending-off.

Tonight's match will be a big test of Sunderland's progress, as their home record in the past two seasons has been poor against high-quality teams. Of 20 matches at home to top-half finishers, Sunderland won just three and lost 14. Their only home match so far this season against a team currently in the top half ended in a 3-1 defeat by Chelsea, so that doubt is still there.

Sunderland took the lead in that match, too, and that is a positive despite their failure to hold on to the leads against Chelsea and Manchester United. Under Bruce, Sunderland have scored in all four home games, averaging three goals per game, and Liverpool's shaky defence will give hope to Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones, who rank as the Premier League's best strike force with 12 goals between them. Even so, Liverpool rate well for the win, as long as they field Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

Manchester City have another chance to prove they are the real deal when they make the short trip to Wigan Athletic. One factor is that they have never won at Wigan in the Premier League, losing three and drawing one, and another is that most of City's scope for improvement this season lies in accumulating as many points on the road as the big four.

Last season, Mark Hughes's first in charge, saw City ranked 17th of the 20 Premier League teams on away form, with only two wins out of 19. City took 11 points on the road, which compared poorly with Chelsea's 44, Liverpool's 43 and Manchester United's 40.

A 30-point improvement in their away tally would put City firmly in the title reckoning, putting them on the 80-point mark if all other things remained equal from last season, and they have made a good start on the task of turning their away form around.

City won on the opening day at Blackburn and followed up at Portsmouth, before losing unluckily in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford and arguably having the better of a 1-1 at Aston Villa last time.

The wins at Blackburn and Portsmouth are the key results in that sequence, because City's final position will depend largely on how they perform against teams outside the elite. Last season, City took only 10 points from 15 away games against non-big four teams, while Chelsea, United and Liverpool had 41, 39 and 36 respectively, all from one game more.

These early games arguably offer the best value that will be available on City this season, as they are not being priced up as a big-four team just yet. For backers who believe in City, tomorrow's odds are too good to pass up.

Safe bet

Consecutive seasons in which Manchester United have won by two-plus goals at home to Bolton: 6

Can only get better

Goals scored by Sunderland in their past six league games against Liverpool, all defeats: 0

Plenty to prove

Defeats out of four against top-half opponents for both Birmingham City and Portsmouth: 4

Top five tips

1 Bristol Rovers on handicap

Strong chance for the division's highest scorers on the road

2 Brighton away win on Handicap HAD

Improvement should continue against serial losers Tranmere

3Bologna away win on Handicap HAD

Solid on the road so far this season, losing only at Milan

4 Juventus home win

Fiorentina have lost eight of their last 10 away to top-half teams

5 Bilbao home win

Bilbao have improved this season and Gijon are poor travellers

Shortlist: Frankfurt, Werder Bremen, Liverpool, Plymouth, Bristol Rovers, Hartlepool, Brighton, Juventus, Hamburg, Catania, Bologna, Bilbao