In-form City can take advantage of Chelsea
Champs should stay unbeaten as they take on Blues still trying to get over Di Matteo departure
Two bets stand out in this weekend's English Premier League programme and one of them is in the big match between Chelsea and Manchester City. The reigning champions have the edge and not only because of Chelsea's slump in form that led to the sacking of Roberto di Matteo on Wednesday, the morning after their 3-0 defeat at Juventus in the Champions League.
City's form is solid, if less spectacular than at the same stage last season. They are the only unbeaten team in the Premier League (every other side has had at least two defeats) and have taken 14 out of a possible 18 against top-half teams, which emphasises that they remain a class act despite their problems in the Champions League.
One of the two draws against top-half opposition was the goalless game at West Ham, which is the only time City have failed to score this season. Roberto Mancini's side are unbeaten in the last 29 Premier League games in which they have scored, winning 24, which suggests Chelsea will find it hard to win without an immediate tightening of their defence.
The unravelling of Di Matteo's reign at Stamford Bridge owed much to the disarray of his defence, with no clean sheet in their last 10 games and 18 goals conceded in 10 games against teams from the Champions League or the top half of the Premier League. Despite last season's Champions League success, Di Matteo had started to look like a man without a plan and for once Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich appears to have made the right decision at the right time by getting rid of him.
Interim manager Rafael Benitez is a somewhat strange choice, however, given Abramovich's preference for attacking football. Benitez is renowned for putting defence first, which is good because that area is in need of urgent attention, although his preference for zonal marking may add to the confusion in the short term.
Benitez's relationship with Fernando Torres may be just as important to turning Chelsea's form around. Torres scored 56 Premier League goals in three seasons under Benitez at Liverpool, whereas his total is just 22 goals in a similar period of time under other managers at Liverpool and Chelsea. It may be that Torres has lost his spark for good, but the next few months under Benitez should provide the answer.
As for this weekend, the advice is to stick with City at a moment of weakness for their opponents.
The other standout bet in the Premier League is perhaps more surprising: Newcastle on the handicap for their away trip to Southampton. It is possible to make a counterargument in favour of Southampton, whose attack has shown the ability to threaten any opponent, but their leaky defence makes them a risky bet.
Newcastle are a more solid proposition, even though they have failed to match last season's high standard and have been particularly disappointing in their recent home defeats by West Ham and Swansea. Their underlying form is better than the table suggests, as only five of their opening 12 games have been against teams currently in the bottom half of the table.
Newcastle are unbeaten in those five games - which are comparable with tomorrow's meeting with 19th-placed Southampton - although four have been draws. Overall, in 2012, their record against current bottom-half teams and last season's bottom-half finishers is won eight, drawn six and lost just one.
West Brom are another potential handicap bet for their visit to Sunderland. The Baggies have won five out of seven against bottom-half teams (with one defeat, against Newcastle) and rate a good chance again despite 15th-placed Sunderland's 3-1 win last weekend against 10-man Fulham.
Reading may be the best longshot away to Wigan, who are often accommodating hosts - they have been in the bottom six on home form for the past three seasons and are currently above only QPR in that ranking.
Reading's sole defeat against a team outside the big six was away to West Brom and they have a good scoring record, which suggests they can get something from tonight's match.
Another upset could be provided by Swansea at home to Liverpool. The hosts have lost only two of their last 10 at home.
1 Newcastle on handicap Good chance to bounce back from recent setbacks
2 Manchester City on handicap Toughest possible start for Rafa Benitez
3 Hull home win Have won 10 out of 13 against teams outside the top six
4 Nottingham Forest on handicap Look more solid than hosts Wolves
5 Atlanta home win Firstrate chance against bottom club
Newcastle, Manchester City, Hull, Nottingham Forest, Swindon, Real Zaragoza, Atalanta, Sampdoria, Fiorentina.
TODAY (11pm unless stated):
Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion (8:45pm) , Everton v Norwich City, Manchester United v Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City v Fulham, Wigan Athletic v Reading, Aston Villa v Arsenal (1:30am, Sun).
Swansea City v Liverpool (9:30pm), Southampton v Newcastle United, Chelsea v Manchester City (midnight), Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United (4am, Mon).