'Six-pointers' in play at top as well as bottom
City manager Pellegrini deserves credit for realising value of results in Premiership's top-seven 'mini-league'
The notion that some matches in the English Premier League are "six-pointers" has long been associated with relegation clashes but Manuel Pellegrini believes the same is now true of showdowns between the top teams and, if he is right, there are two more this weekend when Chelsea visit Everton and Tottenham host Liverpool.
Pellegrini's Manchester City stole a march on their rivals with Monday's 3-1 win over Liverpool, following the 2-2 draw between Everton and Arsenal, and the importance of that victory will be pressed home if they can open an early gap at the top. That will happen this weekend if City beat Stoke at home, as expected, and both Chelsea and Tottenham fail to win.
One of the impressive aspects of Pellegrini's reign at City has been the speed at which he has grasped the realities of the Premier League and he is correct in his belief about the significance of results between the top seven. The team with the highest number of points from that mini-league have been crowned champions in nine of the past 12 seasons, with the title going to the second-highest on the other three occasions.
Jose Mourinho also understands the importance of big games and he will be keen to achieve a better result at Everton than last season's 1-0 defeat. That was Chelsea's only loss against top-seven opponents and was largely down to the lack of cutting edge that ultimately ruined their title hopes.
Chelsea had 22 attempts on goal in the Everton match but Mourinho was left to bemoan their failure to take any of those chances. A new striker was a priority this summer and Diego Costa has made a good start by scoring in both of his first two Premier League games, but he is a major doubt for Saturday's match after injuring a hamstring in training.
Costa would surely have made the difference for Chelsea compared with last year's meeting but, without him, Everton could frustrate Mourinho again. This could be a draw, with under 2.5 goals.
Scoring was not a problem last season for Liverpool, who won 5-0 at Tottenham in December with Luis Suarez at the forefront. That result led to the departure of Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas but the problems did not disappear because just over a month later Manchester City won 5-1 at White Hart Lane, with Tottenham then managed by Tim Sherwood.
Mauricio Pochettino is in charge now and it is difficult to see Tottenham collapsing in that manner under his management. Pochettino's high-pressing style is ideal for a side like Tottenham, who have the skilful midfield players to take advantage of getting the ball back in their attacking third of the pitch. They have won both league games.
The doubt over Pochettino is that his Southampton side last season won only two out of 14 against the seven teams that finished above them, with both of those victories coming on the only two occasions when they kept a clean sheet.
Southampton's figures suggest high pressing works best against lesser teams, while the elite sides are better equipped to handle the pressure and hit back on the counterattack. As Liverpool are a big step up from playing West Ham and QPR, Sunday's match is a good chance to assess whether Pochettino will face the same problem with Tottenham.
With Mario Balotelli set to make his Liverpool debut, this match promises to be one of the most entertaining of the weekend and over 2.5 goals looks a good bet. Both of Liverpool's league games have gone over that mark - taking the figure to 32 out of 40 since the start of last season.
Tottenham would rate more than a marginal pick on the handicap but for that doubt over Pochettino's effectiveness in this type of game, while Chelsea would be a strong fancy if Costa was playing, but the best bet among the big teams is Arsenal away to Leicester.
Arsenal have become highly effective at beating the lesser teams on the road and, while Olivier Giroud's injury is a blow, their attacking midfielders hold the key, especially Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal won eight out of nine away to teams outside the big six last season when Ramsey was in the team.
The top handicap picks are West Ham at home to Southampton and, more tentatively, QPR at home to Sunderland, while the best shorter-priced home team are Newcastle. Visitors Crystal Palace lost nine out of 12 last season before Tony Pulis took charge and they look likely to perform closer to their old form.