Division is clear as achievers take on strugglers
Top nine in league also has distinct layers with Manchester United runway leaders, but it's a mass of mediocrity below ninth-placed Swansea
This is a "them and us" weekend in the English Premier League with most of the matches involving teams in the top nine - the group established as the achievers - against the strugglers that form the rump of the division. Only Swansea v Tottenham stands out as a clash between two of the achievers.
There are distinct layers in the top nine - Manchester United on 74 points, Champions League hopefuls Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal in the 50s and Everton, Liverpool, West Brom and Swansea in the 40s. Even down to League Cup winners Swansea in ninth place, they are the class acts of the division.
The rest of the Premier League is a mass of mediocrity, with only nine points from Fulham in 10th place down to Wigan, who are in the first relegation spot in 18th. As a consequence, most of the match favourites this weekend are short odds and backers may have to look beyond the home /away /draw to find decent bets.
Collectively the top nine have won 61 per cent of their matches against the rest this season, although naturally the strike rates reduce as you go down the table. Manchester United have won 94 per cent (17 wins out of 18), while Swansea have won 44 per cent.
Perhaps, surprisingly, Everton have the lowest strike rate at 41 per cent. That might make punters think twice about backing them in apparently easy games, although this doesn't seem to be a weekend to oppose them as they are at home to out-of-form Stoke. From 10 games in 2013, Stoke have taken only five points and four of those were against Reading and Wigan, who are both in the relegation zone.
A key reason for Everton's low strike rate against the strugglers is they have kept only one clean sheet in 17 games - the lowest number of shut-outs in that category by any team. That has led 13 of the 17 games to have over 2.5 goals, which looks the best bet in Everton v Stoke.
Arsenal's strike rate against teams below the top nine may surprise their critics. Only the two Manchester clubs have bettered Arsenal's 63 per cent win rate and, along with Manchester United, the Gunners have lost just one match in that category.
It is worth noting Arsenal have more games left in the category than any of their rivals for a top-four place and that might enable them to grab a Champions League ticket.
Today's home match against second-bottom Reading looks straightforward, although Arsenal have won by two goals or more in only three out of eight at home against teams outside the top nine, which reduces confidence in them covering the handicap.
Reading, however, have lost their other five away matches against top-six sides and three of those defeats were by big scores (3-1 twice and 4-2), although they kept the score to 1-0 against both Manchester clubs.
The best bet could be draw-Arsenal on the HaFu, which has been the outcome in seven of Arsenal's games this season (only Tottenham, with eight, have more).
Liverpool have the same strike rate as Arsenal against teams below the top nine and they have a good chance at Aston Villa tomorrow. Brendan Rodgers' team have won four out of seven on the road in that category and Villa have the same loss rate at home to top-nine teams.
The doubt over Chelsea tonight - and to a lesser extent Manchester United - is they are likely to field less than full-strength sides only two days before the Chelsea-United FA Cup quarter-final replay. Chelsea won 5-1 at Southampton in the FA Cup third round, but a repeat looks far from assured and it might be worth siding with Southampton to cause an upset, at least on the handicap. The Saints have beaten Manchester City and Liverpool (both 3-1) at home in recent weeks.
United should be safe enough at Sunderland, who have lost key players Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole for the rest of the season, but Chelsea look the team to back in Monday's FA Cup clash.
Chelsea's FA Cup record is superb and they rate the handicap pick after their spirited comeback at Old Trafford turned the tie in their favour with home advantage.
QPR could win at big odds away to Fulham in Monday's Premier League match and an even better bet is over 2.5 goals with attack the only option for Harry Redknapp's side.
When Redknapp saved Portsmouth from relegation in 2005-06, eight of their last 10 games had over 2.5 goals.
Liverpool, Bolton, Nottingham Forest, Mainz, Dortmund, Real Sociedad.
1 Liverpool away win Best bet on a difficult Premier League programme
2 Nottingham Forest home win Good odds again as they go for seventh straight win
3 Mainz home win Six wins out of nine at home to teams below them
4 Dortmund away win Strong away form stretches back to October
5 Real Sociedad on handicap One defeat in last 18 league games – against Real Madrid
(11pm unless otherwise stated): Arsenal v Reading, Everton v Stoke City (1.30am, Sun), Manchester City v Newcastle United, Southampton v Chelsea, Sunderland v Manchester United (8.45pm), Swansea City v Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United v West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic v Norwich City.
Aston Villa v Liverpool (9.30pm)
Fulham v Queens Park Rangers (4am, Tue)