with Nick Pulford
This is turning into the Premier League season many thought we would never see again and it's not just Liverpool who have reason to fear the rise of Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City.
Chelsea and Manchester United, too, will be taking Villa more seriously now that Martin O'Neill's side have jolted their title challenges with victories against both of the top two, while Arsenal must prove their longer-term ability to cope without Robin van Persie before they can be sure of their usual top-four position, never mind a title bid.
In the wake of Villa's win at Old Trafford, the English press was quick to seize on the 'egalitarianism' and 'democratisation' of this season's Premier League, but it might be too early to claim that Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City - none of whom have yet experienced Champions League football - have sealed the deal in breaking up the big-four monopoly.
Villa, for instance, have achieved headline-grabbing wins over United, Chelsea and Liverpool, but their record against the bulk of the Premier League does not set them apart as something special. They have won fewer than half of their games against teams outside the top eight and their average of 1.64 points per game in that category is simply not good enough.
By comparison, Chelsea's average is 2.55, United's 2.5 and Arsenal's 2.44. Even Tottenham, who have suffered shock defeats at home by Stoke and Wolves, average two points per game against teams outside the top eight, while Manchester City's average is 1.89 despite their long sequence of draws.
Interestingly, all of the traditional big four teams are performing better than Villa, Tottenham and City against the lower rump of the Premier League, as Liverpool are averaging 2.2 points per game against teams outside the top eight.
This is a significant factor because, for the contenders at the top of the table, almost two-thirds of their available points are against teams outside the top eight. The difference between the Liverpool and Villa averages in that category means that Villa must make up a theoretical deficit of 13 points on Rafa Benitez's team if they are to finish above them in the table.
At the moment, of course, that gap has been closed - and more - by Villa's extraordinary results against the big four and Liverpool's relative under-performance in the big games. What has dragged Liverpool down this season is their poor return from games against the rest of the top eight - just one win in seven, and only five points out of a possible 21.
Yet the likelihood is that Villa's great run against the other top teams will not continue, so they must improve their results against the bulk of the division to stand a chance of finishing in the top four. Tuesday's win at Sunderland was a good start on that front and O'Neill will be looking for another three points at home to Stoke today to bolster Villa before their clashes with Arsenal and Liverpool over the Christmas period.
Villa's home form has been one of their main areas of improvement this season. Since their surprise opening-day defeat by Wigan, Villa have won five out of seven at home, including their excellent comeback victory over Chelsea, and notably that run has included four wins out of four against teams outside the top eight.
All of those four wins have been by clear-cut margins - 2-0 against both Fulham and Portsmouth, 5-1 versus Bolton and 3-0 against Hull - and their defensive solidity clearly is a major factor behind those results.
Punters will pay a premium to back Villa in this type of match-up, given their excellent form, but it is hard to go against a Villa win against Stoke and the way to improve the odds would be to look at a clear-cut win, with 2-0 a good correct-score option as Stoke have trouble scoring on the road against the better teams.
All the top eight are playing teams outside that group this weekend and the points averages of the big four in particular, and of Tottenham, point to strong chances for them. Arsenal at home to Hull, Chelsea away to West Ham and Liverpool at Portsmouth clearly rate as bankers.
Tottenham offer better value for their visit to Blackburn and will be on a high after their 3-0 home win over Manchester City on Wednesday night. Tottenham could break up the big-four cartel, as they are strong against the lower-placed teams (six wins out of 10 this season, including three out of five on the road) and are capable of beating their main rivals too.
Keeping Jermain Defoe fit could be the key for Tottenham - their points average is 2.07 in games he has started this season, but they have taken only one point out of nine when he has not - and his excellent scoring form (13 goals in the games he has started) makes them a good bet against Blackburn.
The surprise team in the top eight are Birmingham, mainly on the back of excellent results against teams outside the top eight (their 2.27 points average is fourth-best in the Premier League). Everybody is expecting their brilliant run to end, and inevitably it will, but they rate as the best bet in the Premier League on the handicap for their visit to Everton, who are 10 points behind them in the table.
Wins for Chelsea, with one draw, in their last nine meetings with West Ham: 8
Got your number
Wins out of 10 for Manchester City in Premiership clashes with Sunderland: 9
Teams, Everton and Portsmouth, are yet to win against top-half opponents: 2
Shortlist: Birmingham, Watford, Swansea, Southampton, Brentford, Bologna, Bilbao, Notthingham Forest, Montpellier, Marseille, Bari, Chievo, Mallorca, Tenerife
Top 5 bets
1 Watford on handicap.
Only one defeat in five away to teams outside the top eight
2 Bilbao home win.
Seven wins out of 11 against teams below them in the table
3 Nottingham Forest home win.
Unbeaten in 13 and have scored nine goals in their last two home games
4 Montpellier home win.
Can bounce back to strong home form after midweek defeat by Bordeaux
5 Mallorca on handicap.
Strong at home against weak teams and can transfer that form to the road