Punting needs a clear head, ignoring early season hysteria
Thoughts that 'this could be our season' abound but a sense of perspective is essential early on
Anything is possible on the opening weekend of the English Premier League season, or at least that's what many fans, managers and players believe.
The big clubs will dream of title triumph, others will target qualification for Europe and the rest will hope for more than mere survival. Reality may bite later on, but for now there will be a widespread feeling that 'this could be our season'.
Betting on soccer requires a more dispassionate approach and punters need to keep their heads while all about are losing theirs. A sense of perspective will be required in the opening weeks to decipher which clues are genuine and which are misleading.
On opening day last season, for instance, Swansea's 5-0 win at QPR turned out to be a clear sign of things to come. QPR ended up bottom of the table, while Swansea finished ninth and won the League Cup.
But the other 5-0 result on the opening day - Fulham's win over Norwich - was a false portent. Norwich did not struggle, as many had predicted, and finished a comfortable 11th, one place and one point ahead of Fulham.
Nor was Manchester United's 1-0 defeat at Everton in the final game of the opening weekend, following wins for Manchester City and Chelsea, a sign of where the title would be heading. United went on to win by 11 points - a margin of victory surpassed only twice in the previous 17 seasons since the Premier League was reduced to 38 games.
United have a tricky start again tonight when they visit Swansea, while City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all have eminently winnable home matches and Tottenham make the short trip to relegation favourites Crystal Palace.
The Liberty Stadium was among the seven away grounds where United dropped points last season and perhaps more notably the 1-1 at Swansea was one of just three games where they gave up points on the road after opening the scoring. The other two games in that category were the 1-1 at Tottenham and the bizarre 5-5 at West Brom on the final day.
Last season's draw was a clear indication of Swansea's resilience and, in view of United's sluggishness in the Community Shield last weekend, tonight's clash could be tight. Under 2.5 goals looks the best bet and a draw is possible.
Swansea v United is the only game this weekend that features two teams from last season's top 10, but that doesn't mean the other fixtures are foregone conclusions. Several teams have scope for improvement while others will struggle to repeat last season's performances.
West Brom, who got off to a blistering start but were the third-worst team in the league over the second half of the season, are a prime candidate in the latter category and it is interesting that their opening fixture is at home to Southampton, who are one of the likely improvers.
The result will provide the first hard evidence of whether that assessment is correct and Southampton appeal on the handicap.
Another handicap bet to consider is Norwich at home to Everton. The visitors look too short given their high draw tendency on the road last season under David Moyes, who made his former side well organised but unadventurous. Roberto Martinez, Everton's new boss, may alter the second characteristic but a more positive approach could make them more vulnerable.
Norwich are solid at home under Chris Hughton (no team outside the top six lost fewer home games than Norwich's four last season) and the odds do not reflect the possibility of a little improvement from Hughton's side and at least some measure of regression for Everton as they adjust to their first new manager in 11 years.
Stoke will be interesting to watch at Liverpool in the opening game of the season, tonight's early kick-off. Mark Hughes has plenty to prove after his disastrous reign at QPR but he has done well in his other managerial posts and Stoke may only need a change of approach, not a major overhaul.
Liverpool should win - as they did four times out of five without Luis Suarez last season - but a competitive performance from Stoke will be worth noting.
The best bet of the weekend is Tottenham at Crystal Palace, who are unlikely to avoid going straight back down. Tottenham won six out of 10 away to bottom-half teams last season and their fast counter-attacking will cause problems for Palace.
Norwich, Southampton, Tottenham, Birmingham, Wolves, Werder Bremen.
10pm unless stated: Liverpool v Stoke City (7.45pm), Arsenal v Aston Villa, Norwich City v Everton, Sunderland v Fulham, West Bromwich Albion v Southampton, West Ham United v Cardiff City, Swansea City v Manchester United (12.30am Sun)
Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur (8.30pm), Chelsea v Hull City (11pm)
Manchester City v Newcastle United (3am Tue)
1 Norwich on handicap May be closer to Everton this season
2 Tottenham away win Excellent on the road under Andre Villas-Boas
3 Birmingham on handicap Have made a more solid start than opponents Brighton
4 Wolves on handicap Yet to concede a goal after drop to League One
5 Werder Bremen home win Can beat another of the Bundesliga’s worst teams