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  • Jul 13, 2014
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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

Grand Slam Sunday II - the second showdown of the season between the big four in England's Premier League - won't be decisive in the title race, but it could have a significant bearing on whether the championship trophy stays in Manchester or ends up back in London.

There is no denying the importance of tomorrow night's Manchester United v Liverpool and Chelsea v Arsenal clashes, nor that it is advantage United after results went in their favour over the past seven days. United also have some advantages tomorrow, as they have the easiest task on paper (not easy, but certainly easier than taking on Arsenal or Chelsea) and their match kicks off first, giving them the opportunity to put further pressure on their title rivals by stretching their lead to six points.

United currently have the best record in the mini-league between the big four, with two wins and a draw so far this season. That gives them seven points from three games in the mini-league, while Arsenal have five points from three games, Liverpool three from four, and Chelsea two from four.

If United can maintain their lead in that category, it will be a huge step towards retaining their title - in the eight seasons since United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool became established as the big four, the mini-league has been won by the eventual champions on six occasions, with United the only team to buck that trend.

United's best record in the mini-league in recent years has been against Liverpool, with six wins and a draw in seven meetings with their arch-rivals since Rafa Benitez took charge at Anfield. United have kept a clean sheet in the past six of those games, with all six having under 2.5 goals, and at Old Trafford they have won three out of three against Benitez's Liverpool.

Another United win looks good value, with Liverpool having taken only one point from 10 road trips against the big four under Benitez.

Chelsea and Arsenal are more difficult to split and a draw would not be a surprise. The hosts are unbeaten in 77 Premier League games at Stamford Bridge since Arsenal's 2-1 victory there more than four years ago, with six Chelsea wins and four draws in the intervening 10 games against the big four.

Chelsea have drawn the past three, however, and have failed to score in the past two, which arguably hints at greater vulnerability. Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in nine of those 10 home games against the big four since their latest defeat and they will be relying on their strong defence to give them a solid platform - since the injection of Roman Abramovich's cash, Chelsea have won only two out of 13 when conceding against the big four, home and away.

Arsenal are the only big four team to score at Stamford Bridge (in a 1-1 last season) since their win there four years ago and the fact that the Gunners have scored in all four visits to big four teams since the start of last season, losing only once, gives them a good chance of taking something from this game.

If United win and Chelsea-Arsenal ends all-square, United will be five points clear with seven games to play, but even then the chasers shouldn't give up hope. Based on the calculations made last week about how the title run-in would go, United were expected to have 73 points by the end of this weekend, followed by Arsenal on 70 and Chelsea on 66.

Arsenal, admittedly, dropped two potentially vital points at home to Middlesbrough last weekend, but from here on both Arsenal and Chelsea can be expected to outperform United, who have to play five top-half teams in their final seven games.

Closing the gap on United will be difficult, but one slip-up would open the door for the chasers and it would be a surprise if the title race was done and dusted before May.

It might be grand-slam Sunday at the top of the table, but it could feel more like 'down and out' Saturday for the teams battling against relegation.

There are two clashes involving bottom-seven teams - Reading v Birmingham and Newcastle v Fulham - as well as a crucial northwest derby for Bolton at home to Manchester City.

Reading rate the best-value bet in the Premier League, having rediscovered their form this month with two wins and a honourable defeat at Liverpool. Last season Reading won nine out of 10 at home to bottom-half finishers and, despite their overall decline this season, they have won four out of six at home to current bottom-half teams.

Against all visitors to the Madejski stadium this season, Reading have won seven out of 11 when scoring and lost only to top-six teams, so it is encouraging that they have scored in their past four league games, having failed to score in five against Premier League opposition before that.

Gunners get the Blues

Defeat in 11 league visits to Chelsea for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, with four wins and six draws: 1

Reds goal famine

Blanks in 10 road trips to big four teams for Liverpool under Rafa Benitez: 7

At home with the Royals

Reading's win percentage at home to bottom-half teams since joining the Premier League: 81

Away day to Watford

Away wins for Watford - the most in the Championship. With the lowest number of away defeats (three): 10

FORM FACT:

Bolton have scored only five goals in nine Premier League games since Nicolas Anelka moved to Chelsea, winning one and losing six

Keep it Villarreal

Defeats out of 15 against top-half teams in La Liga for bottom club Levante, who face a tough task at home to Villarreal: 13

SHORTLIST:

Reading, Bristol City, Watford, Crystal Palace, Crewe, Luton, Auxerre, Valenciennes, Sevilla, Villarreal, Werder Bremen

BEST BETS:

$150 Reading (HW, Sat), Watford (handicap, Sat), Villarreal (AW, Sun). Last week: two winning bets out of three

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