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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am

Stoke's intimidating Britannia stadium would be low on the list of preferred venues for most Premier League managers, and especially so if the manager is facing calls for his head, the team are at a low ebb after a surprise cup defeat and there are injuries to key players.

Yet that is the scenario facing Rafa Benitez as he takes stumbling Liverpool to Stoke for tonight's early kick-off. It has the look of a make-or-break match for Liverpool's season, as victory would pick them up after Wednesday's FA Cup loss to Reading and move them, temporarily at least, to within two points of fourth-placed Manchester City.

Another defeat, however, could mean they are eight points behind when the weekend is over, if City continue their winning run under Roberto Mancini with victory at Everton.

The task confronting Liverpool is far from easy, as only seven teams have won at the Britannia in Stoke's 29 home games since they joined the Premier League. Liverpool aren't one of them, having drawn 0-0 at the Britannia last season, but they are strong favourites to win this time despite the dark clouds swirling around them, and arguably their win odds underestimate their chance of victory.

Swimming against the tide of public opinion could pay dividends with Liverpool, whose 'crisis' is relative to their excellent second place in the Premier League last season and the perhaps unrealistic expectations that brought for Benitez's squad this season.

Liverpool have regressed this season, but not by so much that they shouldn't be able to win at Stoke. Liverpool's away defeats have been against Tottenham, Chelsea, Fulham, Sunderland and Portsmouth. And the defeat at Sunderland was unlucky in the extreme, after the winning goal deflected in off a stray balloon.

That leaves the 3-1 defeat at Fulham and the 2-0 reverse at Portsmouth as the worst league performances by Liverpool this season, but crucially they have still won four out of six on the road when they have scored.

That is a relevant factor because Stoke have been less solid at home this season, with their only clean sheets coming against three of the worst five away teams in the Premier League.

There is always the question of how Liverpool will cope without the talismanic Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, both ruled out by the injuries picked up against Reading on Wednesday. Stats don't support the view that Liverpool miss Gerrard unduly, with Torres the most crucial player in their ranks.

Even without Torres, however, Liverpool have lost only one out of six this season, which suggests they are solid enough all round to build a platform for victory at Stoke.

Manchester City are above Liverpool in the table and are playing away to Everton - a team two places below Stoke - which might beg the question as to why City are much longer odds than Liverpool for a win.

City certainly have a favourite's chance, and backers might well be rewarded by going with Mancini's winning touch, but the best bet is City on the handicap.

Since losing 2-0 at home to Liverpool on November 29, Everton are unbeaten in six league matches and, although only one of those games has been won, they have drawn against high-flying Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Even the Liverpool defeat was, by common consent, an unlucky one, so Everton look set to push back into the top half before long.

The problem for Everton, even during their recent run, has been an uncharacteristic lack of clean sheets. Three of their five wins this season came in the three matches when they shut out the opposition, which suggests the wins will begin to stack up only if they can keep clean sheets on a regular basis.

It will be difficult to start that process against a City side who have scored in 18 out of 20 Premier League games and notched nine goals in three league games since Mancini's arrival. City's own leakage at the back has been stemmed by Mancini, but that might be only temporary and Everton are the best team he has faced so far, so the win is not assured.

The other in-form Premier League team who offer some value on the handicap is Birmingham, who visit Portsmouth. Birmingham are unbeaten in five on the road, with three wins, and three of their four away defeats were against teams above them in the table - the other was against Burnley, a strong home side. Portsmouth have won just three of their 10 home games this season, losing the other seven.

Going back to Liverpool's midweek defeat by Reading, the best bet in the Championship is Nottingham Forest for a home win over the Anfield heroes. Just as Liverpool are capable of bouncing back from defeat, so Reading could well revert to type when they return to their relegation battle.

In any case, Forest are the best team in the Championship at the moment, having compiled a 17-match unbeaten run. During that run, Forest have accumulated seven points more than any other team in the division and they look too good to miss at the odds on offer tonight.

Worrying trend

Defeats out of eight for Bolton against Arsenal outside the Sam Allardyce years: 7

Proud record

Defeats in 13 games for Birmingham against teams below them in the table, with nine wins: 2

Cannon fodder

Goals scored in Chelsea's six home games against bottom-half teams, with all of them having over 2.5 goals: 24

Top five bets

1 Liverpool away win On the ropes but only the top three have won more away games

2 Crystal Palace on Handicap HAD Only one defeat in seven away to teams below them in table

3 Nottingham Forest home win In great form, with seven wins in their last eight at home

4 Charlton away win Five away wins out of nine against teams outside the top six

5 Manchester City on handicap Still just two defeats and playing with more confidence now

Shortlist: Liverpool, Birmingham, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Colchester, Charlton, Manchester City, Montpellier, Rennes, Lazio, Roma, Mallorca