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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am

Manchester City and Liverpool, who have made the strongest runs in recent weeks in the race for the fourth Champions League qualification spot from the English Premier League, meet in a crucial showdown tomorrow that could have a major bearing on the final outcome.

Plans are afoot to introduce a play-off for fourth place, thereby extending the competition and excitement that makes the league so popular, but this year's battle does not need any stimulus. The four teams that occupy fourth to seventh are separated by just three points, with fourth-placed City and Aston Villa (seventh) having a game in hand over Liverpool (fifth) and Tottenham (sixth).

The picture looked a little different at the turn of the year, with Tottenham in fourth place and Liverpool the stragglers of the quartet, four points behind Tottenham. Since then, Liverpool have been the best performers of that group, taking 11 points in the first six weeks of 2010. City are next best with 10, followed by Villa with seven and stuttering Spurs on six.

In truth, none of the four teams has been in great form, but the battle looks set to remain close and exciting on the season run-in. Liverpool arrive at Eastlands with only one defeat in seven games in all competitions since their FA Cup exit against Championship strugglers Reading. That defeat was 1-0 away to Arsenal 10 days ago and that was only the second goal they conceded during that run - the other was a last-minute equaliser for Stoke City in the 1-1 at the Britannia stadium a month ago.

In the absence of Fernando Torres, Liverpool have renewed their push for fourth place by going back to basics and making sure they don't give anything away at the back, but that is a limited approach and they could come unstuck against City.

Without Torres, Rafa Benitez's side find it difficult to score on a regular basis - especially on the road - and that means they will be looking to shut out a City side that has scored in 29 out of 31 home league games since the start of last season. City's home goals average in that period is 2.26 goals per game, which is bettered only by Manchester United (way ahead of the rest on 2.46 goals per game).

City's last blank at Eastlands in the Premier League was on December 13, 2008, when they lost 1-0 to Everton. They have won 18 of their 22 home league games since then, which indicates a strong chance of a home win tomorrow if they breach the Liverpool defence.

Their form when scoring is backed up by the poor record of Liverpool when they have conceded on the road this season. They have lost six out of nine in that scenario, with their only two wins coming early in the campaign at Bolton and West Ham, who have turned out to be two of the worst teams in the Premier League this season. Overall, Liverpool have won just four out of 15 when conceding this season.

Liverpool will not find it so easy to outscore or even match City if they concede tomorrow, especially without Torres, who scored three of their six goals in those two wins over Bolton and West Ham. And they were crucial goals too - the opener and the winner against West Ham, and the equaliser at 2-2 against Bolton, giving Liverpool momentum immediately after the hosts had been reduced to 10 men.

Liverpool have scored only three goals on the road this season without Torres on the pitch and, while their top striker has scored five away goals, the rest of the team have managed just seven between them.

Essentially, then, City v Liverpool boils down to the potent home attack against the rediscovered resilience of the away defence. As a general rule, games with that profile between closely matched sides often go in favour of the better defence, but that rule looks likely to be broken tomorrow.

Liverpool are so reliant on keeping a clean sheet and continue to be so overrated at the odds, despite their decline this season, that City stand out as the best-value bet this weekend.

Another factor is that Liverpool are coming off a hard-fought home win over Unirea in the Europa League on Thursday night, whereas City will be fresher after playing earlier in the week.

That factor also applies to England's other Europa League representatives. Fulham host Birmingham City three days after their home win over Shakhtar Donetsk, though Everton - also 2-1 home winners, against Sporting Lisbon - have had a much-needed extra day to recover before hosting Manchester United tonight.

Fulham would appeal as the next-best bet in the Premier League if it was not for the uncertainty over their ability to go again after their Europa League exertions. Their form in post-European games certainly suffered in the early months of the season, but then they won two post-European home games against Sunderland and, much more impressively, 3-0 against Manchester United.

Perhaps Fulham's home form will outweigh any tiredness, and no doubt on form Roy Hodgson's team are a good-value bet against Birmingham.

City's home advantage

Consecutive scoring home games for Manchester City in all competitions: 28

Two-goal derbies

Of the last 17 Blackburn-Bolton derbies have had two goals or fewer: 11

Chelsea's long haul

Chelsea lead the Premier League for games with over 2.5 goals: 19

Top five bets

1 Swansea on handicap Stylish, hard to beat and not yet out of the race for automatic promotion

2 Boulogne home win A poor team, but worth chancing against Le Mans, who have lost all 11 away

3 Mallorca home win Good value against Sevilla to extend perfect home record to 11 games

4 Bilbao home win Solid enough at home to beat Spain's worst travellers

5 Manchester City home win Value bet to strike a blow in the race for the Champions League

Shortlist: Swansea, Boulogne, Valenciennes, Mallorca, Cagliari, Manchester City, Bilbao, Schalke, Rennes.


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