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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 November, 2009, 12:00am

Chelsea don't appear to be listening to the opinion that this is the most open and competitive English Premier League season in years, and their early position as champions-elect will look even stronger if they grab three points from tomorrow's visit to Arsenal.

First versus third makes this the match of the weekend and victory for Chelsea would put them 11 points ahead of Arsenal with little more than one-third of the season gone. Arsenal have a game in hand, but even a draw might not be enough to fan the flames of their flickering title hopes.

Arsenal can take heart from their solid record in big-four clashes over the past two seasons, with only three defeats out of 12. This season they have lost their only game in that category so far, 2-1 at Manchester United, but again there was encouragement in their dominant performance for the first hour or so.

The negative against Arsenal is that they still appear weak when things go against them. They were shaken by United's comeback at Old Trafford, and the same lack of resilience has been evident against West Ham, where they took only a point despite leading 2-0 inside the final quarter of the game, and in last week's 1-0 defeat at Sunderland.

What is developing into an even more crucial factor for Arsenal's chances, however, is the availability of Robin van Persie, who has been Arsenal's best performer this season and was much missed against Sunderland. The Dutchman has had a troubled couple of seasons with injury and his latest ankle problem is threatening to derail Arsenal's title challenge just as it was beginning to build up a head of steam.

Van Persie may have appeared to be an inconsistent performer for Arsenal, but that perception is largely down to the fact that he has been in and out of the team. The stats show that his goals turn Arsenal into title contenders, rather than just a team capable of finishing in the top four.

It was telling that Van Persie's quick double strike turned the game in Arsenal's favour when they won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge last season - a rare win over Chelsea in recent seasons. Since 2004-05 - the season Jose Mourinho arrived at the Bridge - Chelsea have won seven, drawn four and lost only two against Arsenal in all competitions.

With Van Persie fit and scoring, as he has been this season with seven goals in 11 starts, Arsene Wenger could expect his young team to compete at the highest level and to finish in the top two at least. As well as goals, Van Persie has shown his worth this season with perceptive passing and positioning, and his return cannot come soon enough for Arsenal.

Without Van Persie, there will be a serious doubt about whether Arsenal have the ammunition to hurt Chelsea, who have conceded only eight goals in 13 league games - three of which were in the 3-1 defeat at Wigan, which becomes a more unfathomable result with each passing week.

In previous seasons, Arsenal could fall back on Emmanuel Adebayor, but Wenger no longer has a striker of that quality and physicality to call on when Van Persie is absent. He has world-class attacking midfielders in Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin, who could hurt Chelsea, but in terms of firepower, Chelsea appear to have the edge on this occasion. Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou have thrived in Carlo Ancelotti's diamond formation and Chelsea's total of 33 league goals is not too far behind Arsenal's 36.

As an all-round unit, Chelsea look the best team in the Premier League and they can prove it by taking at least a point tomorrow. They rate the best bet on the handicap.

There is little solid form on which to judge Everton vs Liverpool, with both teams falling below the standards of recent seasons. Liverpool have won eight of the 14 league derbies for which David Moyes has been in charge of Everton and there is still a sizeable edge in class for Rafa Benitez's team, who could use this match as a springboard to a better run of form. Everton's slump has been worse than Liverpool's and it is difficult to see how they can beat one of the elite teams on current form.

The bets that stand out in the Premier League are Blackburn and Fulham at home. Fulham have won four out of six at home this season - the only defeats were against Chelsea and Arsenal - and rate good value to beat Bolton, who have yet to keep a clean sheet.

Blackburn, whose defeat at Craven Cottage on Wednesday emphasised the strength of Fulham's home form, have performed well against the poorer away teams since Sam Allardyce took charge, with seven wins and three draws from 10 home games against teams ranked in the bottom 10 on away form. Even without Allardyce, who is undergoing heart surgery, Blackburn's attack should get the better of Stoke City, who have lost 15 out of 25 on the road since joining the Premier League.

The big match in Continental Europe is El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, who are separated by a single point at the top of La Liga. Barca won the last meeting between the clubs 6-2 at the Bernabeu in May and the impression remains that they are the better team when they hit top form.

Mersey blues

Out of 14 league derbies for Everton's David Moyes, the Toffees have won: 2

Bolton bashing

From 24 points that Fulham could have gained at home to Bolton, they have: 22

Goals galore

Consecutive Villa-Tottenham meetings with three goals or more: 5

Shortlist: Blackburn, Fulham, Leicester, West Brom, Toulouse, Valenciennes, Auxerre, Genoa, Palermo, Parma, Barcelona

Top 5 tips

1 Blackburn home win

Good chance of a fifth straight home win in the league

2 Fulham home win

Strong at home against teams outside the elite

3 Barcelona home win

Still the best team in Europe when they hit top form

4 Genoa home win

Have the firepower to overcome higher-placed Sampdoria

5 Parma home win

Strong home form is the foundation of their high league position


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