with Nick Pulford
The stakes could not be higher for Manchester United and Chelsea tomorrow night as they return to Premier League action following surprise setbacks in cup competitions.
Chelsea were held 1-1 at home by League One side Southend in the FA Cup and then United, who had no problem progressing in that competition against Southampton, lost at Championship outfit Derby in their midweek League Cup semi-final first leg.
The big guns have a second chance to get the right result in those ties, but there will be no such escape clause in tomorrow's crucial league showdown. By kick-off at Old Trafford, Liverpool could be six points clear at the top, which will crank up the pressure on United and Chelsea to take three points.
Neither team goes into the Old Trafford clash in top form. United are unbeaten in seven league matches since their 2-1 defeat at Arsenal two months ago, but they have scored more than once in just one of those seven games, even though six of the opponents are in the bottom eight.
Chelsea started well under Luiz Felipe Scolari, but their progress has stalled in the past two months. They have won only three of their last eight league games - two of them against bottom club West Brom - and their only similar run of results in the past 41/2 seasons was the sequence early last season that led to the departure of Jose Mourinho and continued into the early games of Avram Grant's brief reign.
Scolari earned plaudits for the exciting football his team produced in the first three months of the season, but he has been struggling to get Chelsea to win ugly in the manner that Mourinho perfected during his championship-winning seasons at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho also knew how to get results in big-four clashes, with a record of 10 wins, seven draws and just two defeats during his Chelsea reign. Scolari's record so far is won none, drawn one and lost two (all at home) and he must look for a better points total from Chelsea's visits to United, Liverpool and Arsenal in the second half of the season.
There is encouragement in Chelsea's good record against United, not just under Mourinho. Since Roman Abramovich took control of Chelsea in 2003, the Blues have lost only two of 16 against United in all competitions in 90 minutes, though both defeats came from their six visits to Old Trafford.
That record points to Chelsea on the handicap, especially as their only defeats in these clashes in the Abramovich era have come when United have managed to keep a clean sheet.
United's defensive record during their recent low-scoring run has kept them accumulating points, but they will need to up their game tomorrow even against Chelsea's spluttering attack.
Chelsea have struggled since teams became more adept at stifling their attack, but United will be more attacking at home and Scolari's team may get more freedom than usual. If you believe Chelsea can score, as they did in 18 of their 19 away league games during 2008, that makes them the pick on the handicap.
The draw, though, has been the predominant result in United-Chelsea games in the Abramovich era, with half of the 16 games in all competitions ending all-square after 90 minutes. Most of the encounters have been low-scoring too, with 12 out of 16 having under 2.5 goals. With so much at stake, another low-scoring match is likely.
Liverpool should win at Stoke but are very short, and better value lies with Fulham and Portsmouth at home to Blackburn and Manchester City respectively.
Fulham's home record is exemplary, with five wins and no defeats from their last eight games at Craven Cottage, and this match is a slight rise in class for Blackburn, whose three league games so far under Sam Allardyce have been against bottom-eight teams.
Portsmouth have gone downhill since Harry Redknapp's departure, with six defeats and just two wins in 12 league games, but still it is surprising to see them joint-favourites for the match against Manchester City.
The visitors have fared little better over their last 12 games, winning three and losing six, and they are much better at home.
Portsmouth will be a selling club in the transfer window, while City will be spending big, but not enough deals have been done to bring a dramatic turnaround in form, and at the odds Portsmouth are the handicap pick.
In the English lower leagues, Nottingham Forest are an improving team near the bottom of the Championship and could win for new manager Billy Davies at Charlton, while Bristol City showed their solidity on the road with a cup draw at Portsmouth and rate a good handicap chance at Doncaster. Southend rate home bankers against League One bottom club Crewe.
Valencia returned from the Spanish break with a good 3-1 home win over fellow high-flyers Atletico Madrid and can follow up at home to Villarreal, who have lost four of their last six in the league.
Wins out of three in West Midlands derbies for Aston Villa under Martin O'Neill: 3
Matches unbeaten for Fulham - the joint-best current run in the Premier League: 9
Barnsley, Nottingham Forest, Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Southend, Walsall, Toulouse, Lille, Valencia, Palermo, Lazio, Udinese, Roma.
$200 Nottingham Forest (handicap, Sat), Bristol City (handicap, Sat), Southend (HW, Sat), Lille (handicap, Sat), Valencia (HW, Sat), Palermo (HW, Sun).
Aston Villa are the only Premier League team to have a 100% record this season after getting into a winning position, with 11 wins out of 11