High-flying Chelsea have strong claims against Liverpool when the two giants of the Premiership clash tomorrow night
Some of the biggest names in European soccer go head to head this weekend, with the big-match lineup headed by Chelsea v Liverpool, Real Madrid v Deportivo, Roma v Inter Milan and Werder Bremen v Bayern Munich. All four games are live on TV and are the main highlights on a programme that offers 77 matches for betting and 15 live games.
Those big clashes are less evenly matched than usual, however, with several of the big names out of form. There is a strong preference for Chelsea, Real Madrid and Werder Bremen, while Inter may well have the edge over their southern rivals in Italy.
Chelsea's claims are obvious in tomorrow night's showdown with Liverpool.
They are unbeaten under Jose Mourinho, with seven wins from nine in all competitions, and defence is clearly their strong suit as they also have seven clean sheets to their credit. None of that is surprising, given Mourinho's record with Porto, and nor is it out of character for Chelsea, who had a very similar profile under Claudio Ranieri.
To credit Mourinho with a change in tactics (or to discredit him, depending on your preference) is to ignore the long-term evidence - Chelsea had the most clean sheets of any Premiership side last season (21 out of 38) but often struggled to turn supremacy into goals. Those are the basic truths about Chelsea, whether it has been Mourinho or Ranieri at the helm, and they contain a handy lesson for soccer punters: long-term form is what counts and that does not change overnight, even with the arrival of big-name coaches or players.
Having said that, there have been more radical goings-on at Liverpool under Rafael Benitez, with more changes in key positions, and not all of them for the better. There are signs that they have become less effective away - the evidence is not yet conclusive, but was reinforced by their 1-0 midweek loss at Olympiakos in the Champions League, which was their third straight defeat on the road.
Liverpool's away difficulties are due partly to their inconsistent forward line (could it be that they are missing Emile Heskey's physical presence?) but also to their vulnerability at set pieces. The Liverpool defence has not got to grips with Benitez's preferred zonal marking system and disaster awaits against Chelsea, who scored two of their three goals against Porto in midweek from set pieces.
Liverpool are unlikely to be as negative as Spurs - whose 0-0 two weeks ago made them the only team to deny Chelsea maximum points at home this season - but they have a lot of improvement to find if they are to match Chelsea and it is best to be wary of them in away fixtures for now. History is also against them - last season's 1-0 win in this fixture was their first at Chelsea in 12 attempts in the Premiership (they had lost eight of the previous 11).
History is also strongly in favour of Real Madrid and Werder Bremen in their weekend matches. Real have beaten Deportivo in eight of their last 10 league meetings at the Bernabeu (with two draws) and, though the hosts are not in great form, Deportivo appear to be in more serious difficulties. Real do not appeal greatly at the odds, however, and it is a pity that the handicap option is not available as that might have made it worthwhile playing on this match.
Werder are much better value, especially as they have a first-rate chance against Bayern Munich. Recent history points to Werder - they haven't lost this fixture for five years and since then have won five, drawn three and lost just one against Bayern overall in the league - and so does the teams' respective home and away form.
Werder suffered a rare home defeat to current Bundesliga leaders Wolfsburg last month but they have come back strongly and are on a run of four straight wins overall - the last three against opposition at least as good as Bayern. The visitors have also found better form recently but their away record is still below standard - they were lucky to escape with a draw at Borussia Dortmund two weeks ago and before that were hammered 4-1 at Bayer Leverkusen.
Werder, as would be expected, are more likely to suffer home defeat against a fellow elite side such as Bayern, but that result is not as likely tonight as the odds would suggest. The handicap is a safer option, with no bet for a draw, but Werder are well worth chancing for the win at bigger odds.
The other big games are previewed inside but, as usual, some of the best bets lie in the less fashionable fixtures.
Germany is a good place to start, with Leverkusen and Wolfsburg two of the best short-odds home bankers of the weekend. Both have exceptional home records against the weakest away sides and their respective opponents, Hamburg and Borussia Monchengladbach, both fit into that category. Hamburg have lost all three away games so far, while Monchengladbach are also winless (two draws and one defeat) even though Oliver Neuville has added more punch up front. Monchengladbach's tendency to give up the lead, even if they get in front, means that Wolfsburg should be able to avoid an upset and maintain their position at the top of the table.
In Italy, Sampdoria should open their home account for the season by beating promoted Livorno. Sampdoria's home record last season was remarkable for the fact that they dropped points to all seven of the sides that finished above them in the table, but won eight out of 10 against the rest. It was no surprise that they were beaten by Juventus and Lazio in their two home games so far and, if last season's pattern is repeated, they should be too good for Livorno.
The best bet in Spain may well be Sevilla, away against Racing Santander. Sevilla hit nine goals against Racing in their two meetings last season and their only defeat so far has come at Barcelona. Racing are struggling for goals and are not a great home side anyway, so Sevilla should reward support on the handicap at least.
The other handicap bets that make most appeal are Aston Villa, away at Blackburn Rovers, and Albacete at home to Espanyol. The latter game looks likely to be a tight affair and Espanyol will do well to make this a losing bet, as their away form has not improved significantly despite their revival since the turn of the year.
Best homes: Leverkusen, Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg, Sampdoria, Chelsea.
Best aways: Bolton, Newcastle, Sevilla.
High goals: Leverkusen v Hamburg, Villarreal v Zaragoza.
Low goals: Blackburn v Aston Villa, Everton v Tottenham, Albacete v Espanyol.
'Real do not appeal greatly at the odds and it is a pity that the handicap option is not available'
Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$200 win Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Sampdoria, Chelsea.
$100 win Werder Bremen, Sevilla.