Liverpool set up a tantalising clash with dominant City
Liverpool's win at Chelsea last weekend has set up a fascinating home showdown tomorrow with English Premier League leaders Manchester City in the biggest match of a weekend which also features Manchester United playing Newcastle tonight.
City have played only two of the big six during their 12-game unbeaten run in the league but they were away to the teams lying second and third and both resulted in breathtaking victories - 5-1 at Tottenham and 6-1 at Manchester United. More than anything else, the manner of those wins marked City as a changed team this season - with more attacking power and intent - and established them as title favourites.
But Liverpool, too, are improving - even if their progress has been masked and at times stalled by a lack of goals. As discussed here last week, Liverpool's form under Kenny Dalglish is excellent when they get on the score sheet and their victory at Chelsea took their record when scoring to 17 wins out of 25. They have lost only three of those games - all on the road - and that is one indicator that they are likely to be really competitive against City.
One consequence of City's more attacking outlook this season is that they have kept fewer clean sheets. They have conceded in 8 of their first 12 games, whereas last season they led the Premier League for clean sheets by shutting out the opposition in almost half of their matches.
This season Roberto Mancini has used his attacking armoury to outscore the opposition and worry less about keeping the door shut, with the results so far proving that the change of policy was a wise decision. But City have kept only one clean sheet in six away games and, despite the wide-margin victories in big-six clashes, have arguably been fortunate to win 3-2 at Bolton and QPR.
City's only dropped points this season came on the road when they allowed Fulham to fight back for a 2-2 draw, making it three away games out of six in which they have conceded two goals. That suggests Liverpool have reasonable prospects of scoring tomorrow.
Another good indicator for Liverpool is their strong record in big-six matches since Dalglish took charge. They have lost only two of 11 - both against Tottenham, although this season's 4-0 defeat can be discounted in part because Liverpool were reduced to 10 men within half an hour and had another send-off later on.
In line with their general form, Liverpool have an excellent record when scoring in big-six clashes - five wins and two draws out of seven. That record includes a 3-0 win over City at Anfield in April, although the relevance of that result is somewhat diluted by City's improvement this season.
Also less relevant than it might have been is Liverpool's excellent long-term record against City, although it is still worth noting. At home in Premier League meetings with City, Liverpool have won 10 out of 14 and lost only once.
The Reds have lost just one home league game out of 15 under Dalglish (eight wins and five draws out of 13 when scoring) and should give City a tough examination. This is also a big test of Liverpool's progress but, as at Chelsea last weekend, they look a good bet on the handicap.
There were positives for Newcastle even in defeat at City last weekend, when they scored and hit the post, and a repeat performance might give United a few problems. It is difficult to make a case for a Newcastle upset based on their away results under Alan Pardew against the big six, but it is noticeable that United have put defence first since the 6-1 defeat by City.
United kept a string of clean sheets in their next four Premier League and Champions League matches, but the wins were narrow (three 1-0s and a 2-0). The run was broken by the 2-2 at home to Benfica on Tuesday night and, with the margins so tight for United, they are a risk at short odds.
The north London giants, Arsenal and Tottenham, have more impressive recent form than United, having recovered from their early heavy defeats in great style, and they will be popular win bets against Fulham and West Brom respectively.
After poor August results, Tottenham have matched strides with City since the start of September - both teams winning eight and drawing one out of nine in that period. We can't know for sure that Harry Redknapp's side can continue in that rich vein of form, but believers should be backing them at West Brom because they are bigger odds than Chelsea and Arsenal would be - and they are playing better than both of those teams.
In fact, Tottenham's record in the past 12 months has been bettered only by the two Manchester clubs - albeit by a considerable margin - and that suggests they are credible challengers for a final position in the top three or four. West Brom have problems up front and look unlikely to hold Tottenham.
Arsenal have not been far behind Tottenham and City since the start of September - with seven wins and two defeats in the Premier League - and their Robin Van Persie-led attack is taking them back to the old handicap-busting days. A clear margin of victory over Fulham - who have failed to score in four of their six away matches - should not be too difficult.
Tottenham, Southampton, Cardiff, Hull, Leicester, Betis, Levante, Catania.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Tottenham away win
Yet to drop a point against teams outside the top four
2 Southampton away win
Have won seven out of nine against bottom-half teams
3 Cardiff home win
High scorers should have too much ammunition for Forest
4 Leicester on handicap
Can continue their good start under Nigel Pearson
5 Levante home win
Too early to dismiss Spain's early season sensation