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Without their first goalkeeper, Chelsea will have a hard time keeping a clean sheet away at Stoke, the only team in the Premier League who is yet to lose a home. The visitors have an excellent record but most of their victories were narrow margin ones, and it was their defense that kept them afloat. Turnbull is Cech’s replacement but so far he failed to meet the high expectations, and is only a pale shadow of the veteran goalkeeper. Despite the fact that Stoke is not a serious contender for a European Cup spot, they are relentless when playing in front of their fans and will not defend for 90 minutes.

On the other hand, Chelsea can’t afford to play a defensive minded football, because they need all three points if they are to overtake Tottenham. Their opponents are a stringy team that can cope with pressure, but their Achille’s heel is the fact that they play with a 4-3-2 formation against any team. Peter Crouch and Walter are their designated strikers, but despite the fact that they are 29 and 31 years old they are quite dangerous upfront. Chelsea has conceded many goals this season from corners and free kicks, and both Crouch and Walter can take advantage of these opportunities.

A scoreless draw is very unlikely especially now when Chelsea has to cope with Cech’s absence, so punters can afford to take their chances with the over 2.5 goals bet. The bookmakers are expecting the exact opposite and base their assumptions on past performance, but the circumstances suggest a high scoring match. Chelsea is still favorite to win, but the odds should be much higher to warrant a bet on the visiting team.

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2012 has been a terrible year for Liverpool and if they are to turn around a mediocre season, the recovery has to start with a victory over Sunderland. The hosts have been a very streaky team lately, alternating convincing wins both at home and away, with equally disheartening defeats. Last round they scored three goals away at Queens Park Rangers without conceding one but the previous round they lost away at Stoke and allowed three goals as well. Tonight they need to earn consecutive wins and Sunderland looks like the ideal opponent, as they play a rather defensive football.

Liverpool lost the overwhelming majority of points against teams that didn’t hesitate to come out firing against them, and achieved positive results against opponents that chose to defend. Despite the fact that the hosts are only a shadow of the team that dominated the fixtures held at Anfield Road, Sunderland is not the kind of team to challenge them. Without O’Shea, Brown and Cattermole, they are hard pressed to reinforce their defensive and that’s why they would only send Fletcher upfront.

The 25-year-old Scottish player is quite adept in finding breaches in stiff defensive such as Liverpool’s but only if he receives support from the midfield. This won’t happen tonight as the entire team will focus mostly on closing the gaps left by the three absentees, which means that Fletcher will be pretty much on his own. Boosted by their recent victory and the fact that they play in front of their fans, Liverpool should take the initiative early and hopefully for the them take the lead before the break. Punters should either back them to lead at half time and win at full-time, or back them to achieve victory by at least two goals.

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Fernando Torres is no longer a liability for the Blues but their top scorer and together with countryman Mata, packs quite a punch in the offense. Although he needs plenty of opportunities to score, he somehow manages to send the ball towards the opponents’ net more often than he did one year ago. This explains why Chelsea is now in the fortunate position of threatening the third-place and a victory at home against Aston Villa will turn their dream into reality. The difference separating them from leading Manchester United is considerable, but overtaking third-place Arsenal would still be an excellent Christmas present.

Four teams are tied for the third place with 30 points, which would enable Chelsea to overtake all of them in one clean sweep. All they need is a victory at Stamford bridge and against Aston Villa they shouldn’t have serious problems in securing the three points. The visitors have plenty of memories from this stadium but very few of them are pleasant, as they’ve lost the majority of games played in London. On the bright side, they come after a surprising win away at Liverpool and prove that they can still score goals.

Rafa Benitez will not commit the same mistakes he did when coaching Liverpool and will field an offensive minded squad with two strikers. Torres will need to make the most of these opportunities to score, while the more clinical Mata should help him close the deal. It is hard to recommend a bet on a straight Chelsea win, because the odds are simply too low but a triumph by two goals or more raises the value at slightly above 2.00 with most bookmakers.

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There is no more time for playing around now that Manchester City stands six points behind their city rivals, and this visit to Newcastle is of critical importance. At a first glance it appears that the hosts are not going to cause them any problems as they have lost 9 out of the last 10 games. Furthermore, City has twice as many points this season and competes for the title, while Newcastle struggles to return to the first half of the tables. Bookmakers have embraced the idea and are suggesting that the visitors should achieve an easy win, by offering odds of 1.61.

While it is hard to deny their favorites status, there is simply no value in these odds and punters are hard pressed to find a better type of bet. One that stands out from the crowd is the Over 2.5 goals bet, which is valued at 1.70 by Bet365 and is quite easy to justify. For starters, the average number of goals scored between the two teams in the last 8 games is a massive 4, so there is plenty of room for error. Even if the host will be at full strength, Manchester City would easily keep them under pressure for the entire 90 minutes, but Newcastle misses no less than six players.

Even though not all of them play a critical role in Pardew’s squad, the fact that most of them come from the defensive area is worrisome. On the other hand, the visitors are also trying to replace three defenders on short notice and this would only aggravate their defensive woes. We have plenty of reasons to predict a high scoring game, and since the odds are superior to those offered for a straight victory, punters would be right to choose the Over 2.5 bet.