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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am

Chelsea's 6-1 midweek win over Derby has set up the closest Premier League title race in almost a decade, and both Chelsea and Manchester United have the chance to increase the pressure on leaders Arsenal tonight.

By the time Arsenal kick off in the late game at home to Middlesbrough, United and Chelsea will have finished their games away to bottom-five teams Derby and Sunderland respectively.

If those two title challengers win, as expected, United will take the lead in the table on 67 points, followed by Arsenal on 66 and Chelsea on 64. All three title contenders will have played 29 games at that stage, though Arsenal's late game against Boro will give them the chance to regain the lead before the end of the night.

This is the tightest title battle since the same three teams fought out the finish in the 1998/99 season, when United not only won the league but clinched their historic treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

The league was a close-run thing, though, as United won by a single point from Arsenal (the pair were separated by only one goal on goal difference, too) with another three points back to Chelsea.

Chelsea's prospects of closing the gap this season are enhanced by the fact that both Arsenal and United still have to visit Stamford Bridge, and additionally that one or both of those rivals will drop points in the United-Arsenal clash at Old Trafford on April 13.

Yet at this stage the advantage is with United, who could finish on 94 points with a perfect end to the season and guarantee the title no matter what their rivals do. That perfect end is unlikely, but by my calculations United will win the title by three points with a final total of 87 points. Arsenal will finish second on 84 points, ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

Those calculations are based on the three teams' respective performance levels this season against the various classes of opposition they will face on the run-in.

For instance, Chelsea visit Sunderland tonight and are likely to take three points, based on their perfect record of five wins from five away games so far this season against the closely matched group of relegation battlers that occupy places 12-18 in the table.

United's consistency may be the decisive factor, as they are predicted to maintain their current average of 2.29 points per game, which puts them bang on course for a final total of 87 points. Chelsea could match United on the run-in, averaging 2.3 points per game (compared with their current 2.18), but that won't be enough unless United drop points unexpectedly.

Arsenal's run-in points average is predicted at two points per game, down from their current 2.28, and that is because they face those two difficult visits to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, as well as visits to relegation battlers Bolton and Sunderland. Arsenal haven't performed well enough in away games against the teams in places 12-18 in the table, winning only one out of five (with three draws and one defeat).

That has given Arsenal six points from five away games in that category, compared with 15 points from five for Chelsea and 12 from five for United. Winning those games against Bolton and Sunderland looks just as crucial to Arsenal's title prospects as taking something from their higher-profile visits to United and Chelsea.

If they could take those last two opportunities away to lower-ranking teams at Bolton and Sunderland, Arsenal would have a favourite's chance of the title, but it is notable that their recent run of three successive draws has included two at relegation battlers Wigan and Birmingham.

Chelsea probably need a near-perfect end to the season to win the title, as their goal difference is currently 13 goals inferior to United's and six behind Arsenal's.

Even the predicted increase in Chelsea's points average on the run-in would give them only the same amount of points as United in the final 10 games of the season, so Avram Grant's side need to find further improvement if they are to win the title.

The obvious answer for Chelsea is to win their home games against United and Arsenal, which would be a significant step-up on this season's current record of two points from four games against the other Big Four teams. They have scored only one goal in those four games, however, which raises serious doubt about their win capability.

United look the most solid of the title contenders, as long as they can avoid the kind of slip-up that saw them lose 1-0 at Bolton in late November. Apart from that below-par performance, their only other dropped points against bottom-half teams came in draws against Tottenham and Reading.

Arsenal, by contrast, have dropped 11 points against bottom-half teams (four more than United). Chelsea have dropped only two points in that category (a home 0-0 against Fulham) but still that excellent record is unlikely to be enough to secure the title unless they win their showdowns against United and Arsenal.

Springing leaks

Goals conceded in six games against the Premier League's Big Four by Derby, who host Manchester United: 25

Pompey draw strength

Draws from seven home games against top-half teams for Portsmouth, who host sixth-placed Aston Villa tonight: 7

Rovers on the road

Defeats for Blackburn in their last 20 away to teams outside the Big Four. They rate a good chance at West Ham: 3

Home comforts

Home wins out of 12 for Tranmere against teams below them in the League One table: 8


Chelsea go to Sunderland tonight looking for their 18th straight away win against promoted teams, going back to the start of the 2002/2003 season

Nice to see you

Defeat in seven for Nice when scoring on the road, which gives them good prospects at Metz as the hosts haven't kept a clean sheet in 15: 1


Blackburn, Cardiff, Southend, Leyton Orient, Tranmere, Lorient, Nice, Everton, Manchester City


$150 Blackburn (handicap, Sat), Tranmere (HW, Sat), Nice (handicap, Sat). Last week: two winning bets out of three



Derby v Man United

Liverpool v Reading

Portsmouth v Aston Villa

Sunderland v Chelsea

West Ham United v Blackburn Rovers

Arsenal v Middlesbrough


Fulham v Everton

Wigan Athletic v Bolton Wanderers

Man City v Tottenham


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