with Nick Pulford
Eight and a half months ago, Chelsea and Manchester United opened the 2007-08 English league season with the phoney war of the Community Shield, won on penalties by United.
More than 100 matches later, the battles are for real as the two teams go head to head tonight in the race for the Premier League title and potentially have another showdown to come next month in the Champions League final.
Chelsea rightly start favourites tonight, as they have won three and drawn two of their home games in league and cup against United since Roman Abramovich brought his cash to Stamford Bridge in 2003. United haven't scored in those five games, and Chelsea's continuing defensive strength at the Bridge is evident in their 80-match unbeaten run at home in the Premier League.
Chelsea have kept 51 clean sheets in those 80 games, though there is evidence of decline in their home form. In their first title-winning season under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea averaged 2.47 points per game at home, raising that to a phenomenal 2.89 when retaining the title in 2005-06.
Last season that average fell to 2.26 and this season it is barely any higher at 2.29 - the crucial point being that every champion in the past five seasons has averaged at least 2.47 points per game at home (United's average this season is 2.72).
Home draws have damaged Chelsea, a point driven home when Wigan grabbed a last-minute equaliser in the last league game at the Bridge. Throughout their unbeaten run, Chelsea have won seven and drawn four against other members of the Big Four - last month's comeback 2-1 win over Arsenal ended a run of three straight draws in that category.
In the same period as Chelsea's unbeaten home run, United have played 12 away games against the Big Four, with just four wins (three of them against Liverpool, the weakest member of the Big Four). United have drawn five, however, and it would be no surprise if they were set up to play for the draw that would almost guarantee the title.
The key factor in Chelsea's 11 home games against the Big Four during their unbeaten home run is that they have kept a clean sheet in nine, and also nine out of 11 have had fewer than three goals. United have had fewer than three goals in eight of their last 12 away to the Big Four, which points to Lo goals on the HiLo, though it is well covered at the odds.
The better-value bet is Chelsea on the handicap. Chelsea are just better than even-money, which is reasonable given their long unbeaten run and the teams' respective records in Big Four clashes.
Even if Chelsea win tonight, United should take the title. This column last month calculated the finishing line at 87 points and United will reach that figure with wins over West Ham at home and Wigan away. It is in United's favour that West Ham certainly have nothing to play for and that Wigan probably will be safe by the time they host United on the final day of the season.
The prospect of another United v Chelsea showdown in next month's Champions League final looms large after their away draws in the semi-final first legs, but there is still all to play for in next week's return legs.
That is particularly the case in Chelsea v Liverpool, as a 1-1 in the first leg does not confer a significant advantage to the second-leg home team. In the past 10 seasons there have been 10 first-leg 1-1s in the Champions League, with the second-leg home team qualifying five times and failing to qualify five times.
The second-leg away team has qualified only by winning the away leg, however, which looks difficult for Liverpool based on their away record against the Big Four under Rafael Benitez. They have won none out of 16 away to the Big Four in the Premier League and Champions League, losing 11 and failing to score in 11. They have failed to score in all eight visits to Stamford Bridge under Benitez.
Backing over 2.5 goals swims against the tide of recent history in Chelsea v Liverpool matches, but it is worth trying at big odds in next week's match as eight of the 10 second legs after a first-leg 1-1 have had over 2.5 goals.
The second-leg home team has qualified nine times out of 15 after a first-leg 0-0 in the past 10 seasons, which suggests United are in a good position to reach the final. Without an away goal, however, United face a nervy second leg against Barcelona, who will have a good chance of reaching the final if they can score at Old Trafford.
After a first-leg 0-0, the second-leg away team has qualified six times out of nine when scoring, and Barcelona have a good scoring record on the road in the Champions League under Frank Rijkaard. They have scored in 13 out of 19 away games, with four of the six blanks coming in games where they were under no pressure to score.
Werder Bremen, Liverpool, Wolves, Le Mans, St Etienne, Sevilla, Fiorentina, Genoa, Napoli, Espanyol, Marseille.
$100 Liverpool (handicap, Sat), Wolves (handicap, Sat), Le Mans (HW, Sat), St Etienne (AW, Sat), Sevilla (AW, Sat), Genoa (HW, Sun), Marseille (handicap, Sun). Last week: one winning bet out of two.
Wins in nine home games against teams in the top 12 for Birmingham, they'll struggle against Liverpool: 2
Wolves show fangs
Defeats in 16 away to teams below them in the table for Wolves, who rate a good handicap chance at Coventry: 4
Lens to crash at Le Mans
Defeats out of eight away to teams in the top half of the table for Lens, who look vulnerable again at Le Mans: 8
No empathy for Empoli
Home wins out of 10 against teams below them in the table for Genoa, who have a clear form edge over Empoli: 7
Manchester City, Sunderland, West Ham and Wigan are all defending unbeaten home records against bottom-half teams, with 24 wins out of 34 between them
Defeat in the last 10 on the road for Marseille, who rate well on the handicap at Monaco: 1