Goodison trip could set tone for Ferguson's bid to regain title
The new English Premiership season kicks off tonight, and Manchester United and Liverpool cannot afford any opening-night nerves for their tough matches at Everton and Middlesbrough respectively.
It is too early to be talking about must-win games, but Sir Alex Ferguson is well aware that his United team gave up too much ground in the opening weeks of last season and that Everton (who took four points off them last season) are the sort of side United must beat this season if they are to make a serious title challenge.
United were 11 points off the pace after 12 games last season, and were always fighting a losing battle from then on. Gone are the days when United could start slowly and pick up the pace after Christmas - the standards set by Chelsea and Arsenal in the past two seasons mean the race is on from the very beginning. Chelsea and Arsenal both won at Everton last season, which emphasises how important it is for United to show immediate improvement on last season's patchy away form.
They did win 2-0 at Everton in the FA Cup last season and their overall record against the Toffees is exemplary - until their 1-0 league defeat at Goodison late last season, United had won eight and drawn one of their previous nine league visits.
United should win, but they don't rate as an odds-on shot, even if a decline in Everton's form is factored in, and this match is best watched for signs of how the two teams compare against last season's form. Liverpool have an even bigger gap to close on the top teams, and major improvement in their away form is crucial if they are to build on their amazing Champions League triumph.
They face a tough start at Middlesbrough, however. Steve McClaren's side were not far behind Liverpool last season and could improve again now that they have added another high-quality striker in GBP7.5m signing Aiyegbeni Yakubu. On last season's form, Boro should be favourites and they look too good to miss.
Manchester City look fair odds at home to West Brom. Stuart Pearce had a good start as City boss late last season and it may not pay to read too much into a problematic summer. West Brom couldn't beat a top-half side on the road last season and their 1-1 in the corresponding fixture last December was extremely fortuitous. West Brom improved considerably after that match, but they still managed only one away win out of 19 last season
The best away bet is Bolton, who rate as the most likely winners for their visit to Aston Villa.
Blackburn and Charlton (both good away sides over several seasons) must be chances on the handicap for their trips to newly promoted West Ham and Sunderland respectively.
Fulham have a clear form advantage for their home game with Birmingham, but it could be untrustworthy. Birmingham won 3-2 at Craven Cottage last season and have a stronger attack now, while Fulham have lost two key players in Edwin van der Sar and Andy Cole.
Portsmouth v Tottenham is also tough to call. The home side have a narrow advantage on form ratings, but their deterioration in the second half of last season could mean that they don't deserve that status. There are also question marks against Tottenham - their away form went downhill last season and they haven't scored in two EPL visits to Fratton Park.
Best homes: Manchester City, Middlesbrough.
Best aways: Bolton.
High goals: Arsenal v Newcastle.
Low goals: Middlesbrough v Liverpool.