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Arsenal-Liverpool first major test for both sides

Pair's early form has been extremely impressive - but with a number of caveats attached

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 11:11pm

Two top-six clashes are the highlights of the English Premier League programme and some of the teams involved are not who many would have expected at the start of the season.

With both Manchester clubs sitting outside the top six with around a quarter of the season completed, the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool have been quick to improve on last season.

Arsenal v Liverpool, Saturday's late game, is the standout fixture of the weekend. This time last year Arsenal were sixth and Liverpool 12th but now they are first and third respectively and genuine title contenders for the first time in years.

The Gunners have increased their points total by more than 50 per cent compared with the first nine games of last season, but there are a couple of reasons why that should not be so surprising.

Firstly, they were improving fast at the end of last season following the watershed moment of their home defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League on February 19. From that point, they took 29 points from a possible 36, an average of 2.42 points per game. This season's average is 2.44, which means Arsenal have been operating at that high level for 21 games - equivalent to more than half a season.

Secondly, Arsenal had the easiest set of early fixtures this season. Seven of their first nine games have been against teams in the bottom half of the table - more than any other club.

Last season Arsenal took 47 points from their 20 matches against bottom-half teams - the same total as Manchester City and bettered only by champions Manchester United. Where the Gunners struggled last season was in matches against the other teams from the big six - from those 10 games they managed only nine points, while United took 17 and Manchester City and Chelsea both had 16.

Arsenal's title ambitions are likely to rest on their ability to improve their form in the biggest matches and the signals have been mixed. Their only Premier League big-six clash resulted in a 1-0 home win over north London rivals Tottenham and in the Champions League they won 2-0 at home to Napoli, but in the past fortnight they have been beaten at home by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and by Chelsea in the League Cup.

The jury is still out on whether Arsenal's improvement stretches to the big matches, but the problem for punters is that Liverpool are a similar case. Brendan Rodgers' team have doubled their points haul compared with the first nine games of last season, but like Arsenal they have been playing mostly bottom-half teams and they have won only one out of three against top-half opponents. Last season Liverpool were bottom of the big-six mini-league, with eight points from a possible 30, and that accounted for half of the difference between them and second-placed Manchester City. That makes Saturday's game crucial for both sides in establishing their title credentials and it is hard to split them on form. Slight preference at the odds would be Liverpool on the handicap but the better bet is over 2.5 goals.

Nine of the 11 games in which Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have started together for Liverpool have had over 2.5 goals, while Mesut Ozil's arrival has strengthened Arsenal's scoring stats. Six of the nine games started by Ozil have had over 2.5 goals.

The other top-six match is Everton v Tottenham on Sunday night and the visitors rate a good bet on the handicap. Tottenham lost the equivalent fixture 2-1 last December but since then they have been beaten only twice on the road (at Liverpool and Arsenal) in 15 matches.

Everton have developed a good passing game under Roberto Martinez but their only victory of note so far is the 1-0 home win over Chelsea and a shutout will be difficult against Tottenham, who have scored in 21 of their 23 away games under Andre Villas-Boas.

Several outsiders have reasonable prospects of a surprise result, notably Stoke at home to Southampton, Aston Villa away to West Ham and Cardiff in the Welsh derby. The best bet from that group is Villa on the handicap, while solid Hull look well priced at home to Sunderland.