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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 November, 2009, 12:00am

The English Premier League returns from the international break on a rather low-key note, with three of the top four at home to teams outside the top 10. The only match featuring two teams with serious ambitions of gaining a Champions League place is Liverpool v Manchester City, who go into the weekend respectively seventh and sixth in the table.

That is lower than both clubs wanted or expected to be; defeat in tonight's early kick-off would turn up the heat on the losing manager.

Rafa Benitez can forget his already slim title hopes if Liverpool lose at home for the second time this season and, with qualification for the Champions League knockout stage almost impossible, the two top prizes will be out of sight before winter has really taken hold.

More worryingly for the Liverpool owners and fans, defeat to Manchester City would put a big question mark over their ability to secure a Champions League place for next season with a top-four finish. Their previous home defeat this season was inflicted by Aston Villa, and also they lost at Tottenham Hotspur. Dropping points against the teams hoping to break the big-four monopoly of the Champions League places is a clear sign of Liverpool's vulnerability.

Liverpool also lost at eighth-placed Sunderland - albeit in the most unlucky of circumstances - and they will need to show much better form to overcome City, whose expensively assembled squad have lost only one of their opening 11 league games. That was unlucky too, as Manchester United snatched victory deep into stoppage time of a rip-roaring derby.

The cause of City's slump in the table has been a run of five successive draws. They were the better team in some of those games, notably in the 1-1 at Villa, but in their last away game at Birmingham City they were lucky to escape with a point, suggesting Mark Hughes's latest honeymoon period is over.

City raised expectations quickly with a good start to the season, and the 4-2 home win over Arsenal was taken as a clear sign that their dream of breaking into the elite could become reality sooner rather than later. The owners appear to be behind Hughes, but the pressure is likely to build unless City can get back to winning ways.

Another City spending spree is likely in January, but the owners may have second thoughts about handing Hughes more cash if he allows his team to slip any further in the run-up to Christmas.

A serious worry with City's form is their poor away record against teams in the top half of the table - one win and six defeats out of nine last season, and just one point from two games in that category so far this season. Like Liverpool, City need to show improvement on recent form in this type of match-up, which makes this a tough game to bet on.

The rest of the Premier League programme is a mix of mismatches, mostly where the big teams are involved, and closely matched games such as the Lancashire derby between Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, but the best value on a tricky weekend could lie with a trio of home teams.

Stoke have an excellent record against lower-ranking teams - eight wins out of 12 against bottom-half teams since joining the top flight, with no defeats - and they rate good value to halt Portsmouth's revival.

Burnley are this season's Stoke City and they could topple another big team when they host Aston Villa tonight. Like Stoke's Britannia stadium, Turf Moor is proving a difficult place to visit and already Manchester United, Sunderland and Everton have lost there.

Some pundits thought Burnley's excellent form at Turf Moor would go into reverse after they their first home defeat, 3-1 to Wigan Athletic, but the Clarets quickly got back to winning ways against Hull City and followed up with an excellent 3-3 draw at Manchester City.

Villa are hard to beat on the road, mainly because they have a good scoring record (along with Chelsea and Arsenal, they are the only team to have scored in every away game this season), but the odds might overrate them. Since opening with two away wins, against Liverpool and local rivals Birmingham, they are winless in four on the road, mostly against teams towards the bottom of the table.

Burnley rate the value bet in this match, and Villa's scoring record makes over 2.5 goals worth considering.

A little more surprising is that Hull rate well on the figures, and at the odds, for their home game against West Ham United. Partly that is down to Hull's better home form - three wins from six games, which already matches their home-win total in the whole of last season - but also West Ham have been struggling on the road. Last season Gianfranco Zola's team relied on strong defence to get them results in away games, but that attribute has deserted the Hammers this season and left them vulnerable even against other struggling teams.

Chelsea's excellent home form makes them a banker at -1 on the handicap at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham, at better odds, are worth considering for the same bet in their home game against Wigan. With Jermain Defoe in the starting line-up, Tottenham have scored at least two goals against every opponent bar Chelsea and Manchester United, which means they have a good chance of covering the handicap tomorrow night.

Count on a low score

... of the past 10 Liverpool-Manchester City games have had under 2.5 goals: 8

Not so sweet home

... home win in the past 16 Bolton-Blackburn derbies: 1

London fortress

... straight home wins for Chelsea in all competitions: 11

Shortlist: Stuttgart, Burnley, Hull, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Colchester, Sevilla, Mainz, Cagliari, Genoa, Bari, Sampdoria, Leverkusen, Stoke, Mallorca, Valladolid, Montpellier.

Top five tips

1 Bristol City on Handicap HAD

Draw specialists underrated against hosts with just three wins in eight

2 Colchester on handicap

Yet to lose to a team outside the top seven in League One

3 Sevilla away win

Serious contenders in Spain and the Champions League

4 Mainz on Handicap HAD

Promoted team capable of stopping another big-name side

5 Genoa away win

Hosts Livorno don't have the scoring power to stop them