Time for United to play catch-up
Even if Chelsea play like a mid-table team from now on, Ferguson's men will have to improve to overtake them'
'There are no easy games anymore' was a cliche that rang true in last weekend's FA Cup third round when the giants of the English Premiership lived to fight another day, but only after being given some serious scares against lower-league opposition.
If there was any complacency then, there should be none this weekend as the Premiership returns with a vengeance. The first live game is Liverpool v Manchester United - fifth versus third - and that's followed by another cracker as leaders Chelsea travel across London to face in-form Spurs, who lie in seventh place.
Tonight's late live game is Bolton v Arsenal, which usually provides some fireworks, and then tomorrow's main live feature pits sixth against fourth as Middlesbrough host Everton.
The biggest draw will be Liverpool v United, even though both clubs have been overshadowed this season by their big London rivals. United are clinging on to a faint championship hope but the size of their task is easy to put into perspective. The bottom line is that even if Chelsea were to play like a mid-table team for the rest of the season and gather points at around half their current rate, Sir Alex Ferguson's men still would have to improve a little to overtake them.
United matched Chelsea in the midweek Carling Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge and there is no doubt that there is little to choose between the sides in a one-off contest. The league is all about consistency, however, and United just don't have it - especially on the road.
Their main problem is in attack, where they are badly in need of Ruud van Nistelrooy. Wayne Rooney and Alan Smith are aggressive but neither is a consistent goalscorer in the mould of Van Nistelrooy or even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is on the long-term injury list, while Louis Saha looks a shadow of the player he was at Fulham.
Ferguson's teams have always been built on attacking threat, but their lack of penetration up front has been evident in three consecutive goalless games against Spurs, Chelsea and even little Exeter. United will never be good value on the road until they improve up front and they are crying out to be opposed against any decent home team until Van Nistelrooy returns to lead the line.
Fernando Morientes' arrival from Real Madrid should give Liverpool a big lift. They have made good progress at home this season, but their lack of a top-class finisher has let them down in a couple of key games and, like United, their away form is below par for the same reason. There has to be a doubt about whether Morientes can make an immediate impact, however, and a draw looks likely.
For handicap backers, there is a zero line and the side to be with is Liverpool, even though United have won there on their last two league visits (both, incidentally, were 2-1). The best bet this time could be low goals.
Defence might hold the key to the outcome at White Hart Lane, where Tottenham's in-form attack must try to breach Chelsea's impregnable back line. Jose Mourinho's team have conceded only five goals in 11 Premiership away games, with seven clean sheets, and their ability to frustrate opponents has been the foundation of their success this season.
Spurs have been just as tight as Chelsea on the road but have kept only one clean sheet at home since Martin Jol put his more attacking philosophy into practice, following the departure of Jacques Santini. The odds are that Spurs' defence will crack first, as it has so many times over the years against Chelsea.
There is no doubt that Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Fredi Kanoute comprise one of the best attacks in the Premiership, however, and the odds would tip in their favour if they could conjure a goal. Chelsea's ability to come from behind has not been tested too often this season - only three times, in fact, in 22 league games - but they have managed to win only one of those games (and that was when they had almost the entire 90 minutes to overcome Southampton at Stamford Bridge).
It is hard to go against the stats, however, which are overwhelmingly in Chelsea's favour. They have never lost to Spurs in 25 Premiership clashes, home and away, with 15 wins and 10 draws. There is no clear goals trend, though logic suggests a repeat of last season's 1-0 might be on the cards for Chelsea, who have tended to be low-scoring against top-half teams this season.
It is interesting again that Chelsea's match comes before Arsenal's - a persistent occurrence that undoubtedly plays into the hands of the pacesetters, who never see their lead eaten into by the champions but instead have the opportunity to extend their advantage and then sit back to see if Arsenal can handle the pressure.
Arsenal should manage to play catch-up again tonight. They will not relish their trip to Bolton, who have caused them considerable difficulty since returning to the Premiership under Sam Allardyce, though without winning any of their seven encounters. Bolton are struggling to rediscover their early-season form, however, and Arsenal appeal more strongly than Chelsea as an away banker.
The best Premiership bets lie with the home teams, however. Aston Villa and Manchester City were both knocked out of the FA Cup by lower-league opponents, but they look overpriced for the visits of Norwich and Crystal Palace respectively. Those teams were also knocked out of the FA Cup last week and, if they couldn't cope with Championship opposition on the road, they look bound to struggle again at this higher level.
Middlesbrough also appeal at odds-against for the visit of Everton, whose outstanding first half of the season owed much to their ability to wring maximum points out of their away fixtures against bottom-half teams. Boro are several notches above that class, however, and Everton are showing signs of going backwards.
Newcastle's home record has been below par overall this season but they should cope with Southampton, whose away form has been well exposed. It is conceivable that a long-ball approach to the tall Peter Crouch could pay dividends against Newcastle's dodgy defence, but he is not a patch on the departed James Beattie and the odds are heavily in Newcastle's favour.
The top match in the other European leagues is the live Serie A clash between AC Milan and Udinese (second versus third), but the best bet in Italy may be improving Roma at Chievo. The hosts are on a poor run (seven defeats in their last 10), while Roma continued their resurgence in midweek with a 5-1 win at Siena in the Coppa Italia.
Best homes: Aston Villa, Manchester City, Newcastle, Fulham, Middlesbrough.
Best aways: Arsenal, Roma.
High goals: Reggina v Inter Milan, Barcelona v Real Sociedad.
Low goals: Liverpool v Manchester United, AC Milan v Udinese.
Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$200 win Aston Villa, Manchester City, Newcastle, Fulham.
$100 win Middlesbrough, Bilbao.