with Nick Pulford
All the elite teams in the English Premier League must be on their guard this weekend after some of the results by the so-called lesser clubs in recent weeks. Only Manchester United, who host Blackburn at Old Trafford, have what may be termed an easy match.
United are unbeaten in their first 14 games, but even they have given up points to lowly sides, drawing more (four) than they have won (three) against teams in the bottom eight. Three of the draws, though, came on the road and it has been a different story at Old Trafford, where United have won six out of seven and dropped points only to West Brom, who were flying at the time.
The biggest negative against United is their goals tallies have gone down at home, but they should be too good for Blackburn, who remain poor travellers with just seven points out of 42 when playing away to top-10 teams since the start of last season.
Chelsea and Manchester City face tests of nerve at Newcastle and Stoke respectively, while Arsenal go to Aston Villa without skipper Cesc Fabregas, and Tottenham, whose manager Harry Redknapp scents a chance to get into title contention after last week's derby win, are at home to Liverpool.
Manchester City must show they have improved if they are to win at Stoke, who have two wins and a draw in home matches against City since joining the Premier League. There has been a send-off in all three of those matches, which is a sign of the physical combat City must withstand if they are to take three points. Stoke have moved up to eighth with three straight wins and they look a value chance for another win over City.
Chelsea should have won at Birmingham last week and they can make amends at Newcastle as long as they cope with the aerial challenge of Andy Carroll. That is not guaranteed, given their defensive problems, and they look too short.
Arsenal have beaten Aston Villa only twice in six meetings in the past three seasons and they are weakened by Fabregas' injury. In those three seasons, Arsenal's win percentage dropped to 49 per cent when Fabregas was absent (compared with 63 per cent when he played) and, perhaps more tellingly, their goals average per game went down to 1.51 from 2.16.
This is a different Villa team from the hard-nosed model fashioned by Martin O'Neill, but still Arsenal will have a battle on their hands judging from Villa's performance in a thrilling 2-2 draw against Manchester United in their last home game. Villa, unbeaten at home, are worth considering on the handicap.
Tottenham's progress in the Champions League shows they have become one of the best attacking home teams in Europe and they should have too much for Liverpool. In the big Premier League matches, Tottenham look the best bet.
For many fans of the beautiful game, the best is saved for last this weekend with Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid clashing on Monday in the Primera Liga.
At a time when England's top flight is more competitive than ever, the Primera Liga seems moribund by comparison but there is no doubt that, in Barcelona and Real, Spain has two of the best teams in Europe - perhaps even the top two on current form.
Real won 4-0 at Ajax in midweek to seal their passage to the knockout stage of the Champions League as group winners, while Barcelona did likewise with a 3-0 away victory over Panathinaikos.
The domestic form of both teams is just as impressive, with Real coming off a 5-1 home win over Bilbao last weekend and Barcelona having thrashed Almeria 8-0 on the road. Those results kept Real ahead of Barcelona by one point, with third-placed Villarreal already seven points further adrift with just 12 games played.
This could be a season-defining clash of ideals between the pure game of Barcelona and the pragmatic approach of Real boss Jose Mourinho - although the midweek send-offs for Real's Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso hinted at something a little more sinister than mere pragmatism.
Mourinho likes his teams to play a good game, for sure, but winning is most important to him and he will be keen to add to his excellent record in major league clashes. With Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho built his success on getting the better of his major rivals in the big games (only five defeats in 31 against other top-four finishers) and Barcelona had a taste of that in the Champions League last season when they were knocked out by Inter in the semi-finals.
A fascinating - and potentially entertaining - match is in prospect and Barcelona are deserving favourites with home advantage. There does not look to be a great edge for punters in the match odds, unless it is Real on the handicap to continue Mourinho's low defeat rate in big league matches, and the best option might be over 2.5 goals.
Mourinho is likely to base his game plan on sucking the oxygen from Barcelona's on-fire strikers, but the mesmerising skills of Lionel Messi, for the hosts, and Real's Cristiano Ronaldo will be hard to quell.
The two teams have been shut out only three times between them in 34 games in the Primera Liga and Champions League this season and their averages for over 2.5 goals are high - 59 per cent for Real and 65 per cent for Barcelona.
Top five bets1Swansea home win Seven home wins out of 10 in all competitions2Coventry away win Hosts Scunthorpe have the worst record against top-half teams3Atletico Madrid home win Poor travellers Espanyol owe their high position to home form4Bilbao home win Strong against bottom-half teams, especially at home5Cagliari home win Islanders should be too good for Serie A's worst away side
Shortlist: Tottenham, Swansea, Coventry, Sheffield United, Atletico Madrid, Bilbao, Cagliari
Top five bets
1 Swansea home win Seven home wins out of 10 in all competitions
2 Coventry away win Hosts Scunthorpe have the worst record against top-half teams
3 Atletico Madrid home win Poor travellers Espanyol owe their high position to home form
4 Bilbao home win Strong against bottom-half teams, especially at home
5 Cagliari home win Islanders should be too good for Serie A?s worst away side