You Bet | South China Morning Post
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  • Mar 5, 2015
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You Bet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am

Three teams battling for the title, four vying for the final Champions League place and five, realistically, battling to avoid being relegated with Portsmouth. That, in essence, is what the English Premier League has boiled down to, even with six weeks of the season remaining.

If we accept that those 12 teams are the ones with everything still to play for, it is interesting that only four of them are in opposition this weekend, leaving the others to face the eight teams with much less at stake. It is too early to talk of teams having nothing to play for, but it is clear that sides such as Blackburn, who have dragged themselves clear of relegation, and Europa League contenders Fulham will achieve nothing more nor less than mid-table security.

Manchester United, the leaders, are the title contenders who will be kept waiting tonight as rivals Arsenal and Chelsea go into battle first. Arsenal visit Birmingham City, which will bring back uncomfortable memories of their last match at St Andrews, when Eduardo suffered his horrific injury and their 2007-08 title challenge started to unravel.

Those memories were revived on Arsenal's most recent trip to the West Midlands, when Aaron Ramsey suffered a devastating double leg fracture at Stoke, and Arsene Wenger's dark mood in this region was also evident at Aston Villa in January, when he accused the hosts of long-ball soccer after a goalless draw. It is vital that Wenger travels back to London in a happier mood tonight, but that is far from certain, with Birmingham having lost only two of their 15 home games and held United and Chelsea to draws. The key for Arsenal is to find a way to breach the home defence, as Birmingham remain the lowest scorers in the top half of the table, at only slightly better than one goal per game, and almost certainly will come off second-best in an open contest.

Arsenal's chances at St Andrews, and for the rest of the title run-in, are improved by having Cesc Fabregas to pull the strings in midfield, but their away win rate - just over 50 per cent in all away games and 43 per cent on visits to top-half teams - does not inspire great confidence in them at odds-on. The likelihood is that they will score and win, but a draw would not be a surprise, and nor would more complaining from Wenger.

United look much more solid for their visit to Bolton and they rate the banker among the title challengers. Under Owen Coyle, Bolton have gained four vital wins against teams near the bottom of the table, but they haven't scored in six games under Coyle against teams in the top half, and that indicates they will struggle against United.

Chelsea are the only title hopes with home advantage, but they face a tough task against Aston Villa - one of the other Premier League teams with all to play for - and look a risk at short odds after shattering recent home defeats to Inter and Manchester City.

Villa have lost only two of 10 against the six teams above them in the table, with away wins at Manchester United and Liverpool and a 2-1 home victory over Chelsea in October. Their ability to perform in big matches has been emphasised by their cup runs - tonight's game is a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on April 10 - and they are set up well to withstand the power of Didier Drogba and to take advantage of any weakness in John Terry's defence.

Even a point at Stamford Bridge would be a bonus for Villa, who are the outsiders among the quartet involved in the race for fourth place. Their three rivals are all at home this weekend and fourth-placed Tottenham and Liverpool (sixth) certainly should have no problem taking maximum points against Portsmouth and Sunderland, with both of those teams playing for little more than pride.

Manchester City should stay in the hunt with a home victory over Wigan on Monday night, although it is a concern that they have struggled in north-west derbies, averaging just 1.27 points per game. If they could have come anywhere near their excellent 2.05 points per game against all other opposition, City would have been home and dry for fourth place and might even be involved in the title race.

On Wednesday night, Everton became the latest north-west team to inflict damage on City, with a 2-0 win at Eastlands, and they are a major force again, albeit almost certainly too late to have a real shot at fourth place.

Since the turn of the year, Everton have been one of the form teams of the Premier League, winning eight of 12 and averaging 2.17 points per game. By contrast, the four teams immediately above them in the table have been limping towards the finish line, with Tottenham doing best with an average of 1.8 points per game. Manchester City and Liverpool average 1.64 and Villa - unbeaten in 2010, but with an unfortunate draw habit - just 1.6.

It is unlikely that Everton can make up a seven-point gap to Tottenham with just seven games remaining, but on form they rate the best-value win chance on this weekend's Premier League programme when they visit Wolves.

A winning habit

Wins for Manchester United in their past 10 games against Bolton: 9

A losing habit

Wins out of 11 in north-west derbies for Manchester City: 3

Gunners on a roll

Straight wins for Arsenal - the joint-best winning run in the Premier League: 6

Shortlist: Everton, West Bromwich, Middlesbrough, Tranmere, Bristol Rovers, Fiorentina, Freiburg, Rennes, Boulogne, Toulouse.

Top five bets

1 West Bromwich on handicap

Six wins in their past seven as they push for promotion

2 Middlesbrough on handicap

Unbeaten in nine against teams below them in the table

3 Fiorentina home win

Excellent chance against Udinese, the worst away team in Serie A

4 Rennes away win

Back on form and can continue winning run at struggling Le Mans

5 Toulouse home win

Strong at home against lesser teams and should beat Nice

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