Liverpool must raise their game for Chelsea meeting
Newcastle are certain to stay in the English Premier League top three tonight, whatever happens on their trip to leaders Manchester City, because the two teams that can overtake them - Chelsea and Tottenham - are not in action until later on the weekend programme.
Chelsea host Liverpool tomorrow in the headline clash of the weekend, although in recent years it's fair to say the Premier League meetings between the sides have hardly been packed with excitement. It is more than six years since they produced over 2.5 goals in the league and one or both of the teams have failed to score in 10 of the 11 matches during that run.
The emphasis on defence started during the era of Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez and continued even after their departures, but one man who seems determined to effect a culture change is Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, who was adamant he would stick to his attacking philosophy even after the 5-3 defeat by Arsenal in their last game at Stamford Bridge.
That thriller made it five straight home league games with over 2.5 goals for Chelsea. Villas-Boas has yet to keep a clean sheet at home in the league and, while his team were able to outscore the lesser teams, there is now a doubt over whether they will be able to do the same against the elite teams in the Premier League and the Champions League.
What makes this match hard to weigh up is how much attacking intent Liverpool will bring to the Bridge and how effective they will be even if they do play a positive game. Kenny Dalglish - for all his brilliance as a player, and his possession of a similar type now in Luis Suarez - is the exception among the big-six managers in appearing to place more of an emphasis on defence than attack.
That was how he started to turn Liverpool around last season, when eight of their 10 Premier League wins were founded on a clean sheet, and this season's figures tell us Liverpool have the lowest number of games with over 2.5 goals in the Premier League (three out of 11) whereas all the other members of the big six are near the top of the rankings.
But perhaps it is not for want of trying because Suarez has had the most shots of any Premier League player and Manchester City are the only team to have had more shots than Dalglish's side. The problem is that Liverpool's accuracy rate is poor - only three teams (Aston Villa, Stoke and Queens Park Rangers) have missed the target more.
Suarez's 43 shots have brought just four goals - precisely the number he scored in one match for Uruguay last weekend. No doubt he's top class, but something at Liverpool isn't clicking.
There is usually a strong correlation between shots at goal, goals scored and points earned - seven of the 10 teams with most shots are in the top half and the five highest scorers are all in the top seven - but Liverpool are proving an exception to the rule this season.
Liverpool's number of shots suggests their success rate may well turn around and they look underrated at the odds, particularly on the handicap. One of their two defeats was 4-0 at Tottenham but that can be almost discounted because they were reduced to nine men, which leaves Stoke (1-0 at the Britannia) as the only other team to have beaten them.
It can't be coincidental that both defeats came when Liverpool failed to score, but it is noteworthy that they have lost only three of the 24 Premier League matches under Dalglish in which they have scored. Chelsea's leaky defence should persuade Dalglish to be positive and, in that case, Liverpool are more of a risk worth taking at big odds than at short odds at home to some of the lesser teams.
Tottenham look serious contenders for the top four and they should continue their excellent form at home to Aston Villa. Spurs are unbeaten in 14 at home to teams outside the big six, although they are more prone than teams like Manchester United and Chelsea to throw in a below-par result - that run includes draws last season against relegated West Ham and Blackpool, and their last defeat was the shock 1-0 against Wigan in August last year.
As for Newcastle, they will have to raise their form another notch if they are to leave Manchester City with their unbeaten record intact. City are the only big-six team to have beaten them at St James' Park (sorry, the Sports Direct Arena) since Alan Pardew took charge and, while that match came early in his reign and may not be an accurate guide, the away record is worse. Last season Newcastle took one point from three visits to big-six teams.
The best bet looks to be in the match between the bottom two, Wigan v Blackburn. The hosts have gone from bad to worse and are the league's lowest scorers with just seven goals in 11 games, while Blackburn have shown considerably more attacking prowess and won't get a better chance to build on their recent spirited performances.
Consecutive home wins for Manchester City against domestic opponents - nine by two goals or more
Blackburn, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Schalke, Sevilla, Catania, Siena.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Blackburn on handicap
Have looked unlucky and hosts Wigan look plain bad
2 Liverpool on handicap
Chelsea's open defence gives them a good chance
3 Leeds on handicap
Only two defeats in 10 against teams below them
4 Schalke home win
Strong at home and visitors Nurnberg are winless in seven
5 Siena home win
Only dropped points at home were against Juventus