Balance of power puts the focus on Man City v Spurs
At the start of the season Arsenal v Manchester United would have been the pick of tomorrow's Super Sunday showdowns in the English Premier League, but such has been the shift in the balance of power that the more significant match is Manchester City v Tottenham.
Both United and Arsenal have been overtaken in the table this season by their neighbours and, while Sir Alex Ferguson's team remain in the thick of the title battle, the Gunners have been cast so far adrift that they face a formidable battle to take up their usual place in the Champions League next season.
City and Tottenham have fought over the last Champions League spot in the past two seasons and their showdowns have been decisive in that respect. In 2009-10, Tottenham pipped City to fourth place after a late-season 1-0 win at the Etihad, but City gained revenge by the same scoreline at home last May to seal their entry to the Champions League.
City's superiority appeared to be confirmed early this season when they blew Tottenham away with a 5-1 win at White Hart Lane, but the distance between them has been narrowing since autumn turned to winter. Before missing the chance to draw level with City last weekend when they were held 1-1 at home by Wolves, Tottenham had the best record in the Premier League since the start of October.
Even now, with the gap between them at five points, there is barely anything to split the sides on recent form. City's 1-0 win at Wigan on Monday night took their points per game average to 2.33 since the start of October, only just ahead of Tottenham on 2.31.
United, by comparison, have averaged 2.13 points per game in that period. Arsenal's average is 1.93 - respectable but quite some distance from title-challenging form.
Despite the narrow gap between City and Tottenham on recent form, the league leaders deserve to be strong favourites. City have won all 10 home league games - including both of their big-six clashes, against Arsenal and Liverpool, to nil - although a wider view of City's home form in elite games raises some doubt.
In all competitions - Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup - they have won four out of seven against big-six teams or their equivalent from other countries. In fact, one of the victories was against Villarreal, whose form this season (second bottom in Spain's Primera Liga) is below elite standards.
If the win against Villarreal is excluded, City have won only half of their home games against elite teams this season. That raises hope for Tottenham, although they will have to produce one of their best performances if they are to take anything from the Etihad.
Under Harry Redknapp, Tottenham have a near black-and-white record away to big-six teams - and most of it is black, with nine defeats out of 14. Having lost 3-0 at Manchester United in their first away match of the season, Tottenham's improvement faces the acid test tomorrow to see if they have what it takes.
City are probable winners and are worth the risk at the odds, given Tottenham's high defeat rate in this type of match.
United look a decent bet in the other match, at least off scratch on the handicap. Sir Alex Ferguson's team have lost only one out of 10 on the road in the league and the current form gap between them and Arsenal is more pronounced than in the City-Tottenham match.
United also have a good record away to Arsenal - just three defeats in the past 10 matches, although all three have been since the Gunners moved to the Emirates stadium (Arsenal's win rate against United in their new home is 50 per cent).
Arsenal, like Tottenham, will have to raise their game to be competitive tomorrow and United look hard to beat, with their only loss in five big-six clashes being the 6-1 at home to City. Arsenal have lost four out of five against the big six - the exception the 5-3 win at Chelsea.
Most of those games have been at home for United and away for Arsenal, but the form patterns are set well enough to suggest that United are the more likely winners.
Chelsea have an early chance to close the gap on the top three when they visit Norwich today in the first match on the Premier League programme. Andre Villas-Boas has lost only two away matches - at Manchester United and in the controversial game at QPR where Chelsea were reduced to nine men - and that suggests a Norwich upset is unlikely.
But Chelsea have been unimpressive on the road even against some of the lesser teams, drawing 1-1 at Wigan and being fortunate to win 2-1 at Wolves. They are an unappealing odds-on chance.
QPR are interesting at home to Wigan, as they have shown plenty of spirit under new boss Mark Hughes and will be buoyed by their midweek FA Cup win, even though it was against MK Dons from League One. The form figures do not rate QPR highly, but just a little improvement should be enough to beat Wigan.
Newcastle, once again, are underrated away to Fulham and are advised as a handicap bet.
TOP 5 BETS
1 Manchester City home win
Can extend home league winning streak to 16
2 Blackpool home win
Visitors Crystal Palace are too reliant on clean sheets
3 Espanyol home win
Have shown good form since the start of December
4 Palermo home win
Have slipped down the table but remain strong at home
5 Schalke home win
Have won seven out of eight at home to teams below them
Manchester City, Blackpool, Cardiff, Southampton, Espanyol, Palermo, Schalke, Werder Bremen, Dortmund