Strong start does not guarantee title belongs to United
Manchester United's victory over Chelsea last weekend made them only the sixth team in English Premier League history to open the season with five straight wins and the first to do it for Alex Ferguson.
United's impressive start has prompted many to conclude that the outcome of the title race is a foregone conclusion, but it ain't necessarily so. Of the previous five teams with a 100 per cent record after five games, only Chelsea went on to lift the trophy - in 2005-06 and again two seasons ago.
But a searing early pace does have an effect in whittling down the field. In the other three seasons where a team took 15 points from the opening five games, the eventual champions had 13 points and 11 points (twice) at that stage.
That suggests Chelsea, who lie third on 10 points after five games, have a mountain to climb. With Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal even further behind, it may already be the case that Manchester City, on 13 points, are the only serious rivals to United.
United's fast start is even more impressive when taking into account that they have played three of the 'big six' albeit at home. It doesn't get much easier over the next month or so, starting with a visit to Stoke tonight, but United could be out of sight if they are not stopped soon.
Stoke's Britannia stadium is a tough place to visit for most teams but United, without exactly making it look easy, have won their three previous Premier League games there. They are the only team to have done that since Stoke were promoted and they have also won all three home games against Tony Pulis's side, although that is a rather easier matter for most teams.
United's previous winning scorelines at the Britannia were 2-1, 2-0 and 1-0. In two of those games the winning goal did not come until well inside the final 10 minutes (and in one game Stoke were down to 10 men), which suggests United backers at short odds might be made to sweat tonight.
Stoke appear to have improved this season, despite last week's 4-0 drubbing at Sunderland, and that's another reason not to blindly assume United's winning run will go on. The Sunderland result is Stoke's only defeat in 11 games in all competitions and they have taken four points at home to Chelsea and Liverpool without conceding a goal.
Under 2.5 goals has occurred in 12 of Stoke's 20 home games against big-six sides and that looks the best bet. Stoke were not the only team to suffer a setback last weekend after a good start to the season. Wolves and Liverpool were well beaten too, while Manchester City were pegged back to 2-2 at Fulham.
Having looked set to struggle, several teams (notably Sunderland, Blackburn, Swansea and Norwich) were among the big winners last weekend, which had a concertina effect on the Premier League table. Only three points cover the teams from Aston Villa in sixth place to Arsenal in 17th.
The narrowing gap between most of the teams has become a feature of the Premier League and backers are advised to tread carefully with the short-priced teams on this weekend's programme.
Manchester City, for instance, have lost all four games to Everton since Roberto Mancini became manager and, as at Fulham last weekend, backers could be caught out if they expect first-class standards from City too soon.
The best sides in Europe, such as United and Barcelona, have earned the right to be short odds and City still have some way to go if they are to reach that level.
There may be good opportunities to back City as the season progresses, but they are more likely to come if they hit a rocky patch and punters turn against them. While City are riding high, the odds are unlikely to be favourable and that's the case again tonight.
Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are short odds at home too. Chelsea are just too short in view of their less than dominant form, even at home, and Swansea's morale-boosting 3-0 win over West Brom. This is a big step up for Swansea, but they will have plenty of possession (against Manchester City they had 56 per cent, despite losing 4-0 in the end) and should create chances.
Now they know they can score at this level, Swansea shouldn't be underestimated.
The inclination is to favour Liverpool over Arsenal as a banker selection, with last week's 4-0 defeat at Tottenham heavily skewed by two sendings-off. Liverpool's home form under Kenny Dalglish looks strong enough for them to dispose of Wolves with some ease.
One of the most intriguing matches is QPR v Aston Villa tomorrow night, with QPR already much improved after Tony Fernandes' takeover and Villa unbeaten under Alex McLeish.
QPR are worth chancing because the odds, as so often with promoted teams in the early stages of the season, may be out of line with how good they are.
Newcastle also continue to be underestimated despite an unbeaten start to the season and they should secure a home win over Blackburn. Newcastle under Alan Pardew have won four out of seven at home to non-big six sides and, notably, six of those seven games have had over 2.5 goals.
Blackburn, with seven away defeats out of 12, remain a team to oppose on the road.
Newcastle, QPR, Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough, Mallorca, Real Betis, Werder Bremen, Atalanta.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Crystal Palace on handicap
Scoring goals and unbeaten against teams below them
2 Real Betis on handicap
Impressive start to life back in the Primera Liga
3 Werder Bremen home win
Perfect at home so far and odds look generous
4 Atalanta home win
Better than Novara last season and can prove it again
5 QPR home win
A different side now and looks a little overpriced