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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am

This week one English newspaper seemed convinced of an imminent changing of the guard in Europe, using some questionable statistics to argue that there was a looming threat to the Premier League's hegemony from the spending power of Real Madrid and the managerial acumen of Jose Mourinho.

The second part of that theory will be tested next week, when Mourinho's Inter take a 2-1 lead to Chelsea for the second leg of their last-16 tie in the Champions League, but the first part was blown out of the water as Real Madrid were dumped out at the first knockout stage for the sixth year in a row.

While the GBP240 million (HK$2.8 billion) team were on their way out, the Premier League hierarchy looked as secure as ever, with Arsenal blasting five past Porto and the rampant Wayne Rooney leading Manchester United to a 7-2 aggregate win over the once-mighty AC Milan. So much for a fading force.

Real were one of the chief threats to the English clubs, so their removal is a blow for those hoping to see the other major European leagues make a more concerted challenge to the Premier League. The inescapable conclusion from this week's results is that at the elite level the Premier League is as strong as ever and, if Chelsea turn around their tie against Inter, the Champions League may well come down to a battle between Barcelona and the English clubs, as it has in essence for much of the past five years.

On another level, however, there is some evidence that the Premier League elite are regressing. United lead the table, having played 29 games, and their 63-point haul is the joint-lowest for the leaders at this stage since the turn of the millennium. Even if Chelsea win their game in hand to move to 64 points after 29 games, that will still be the lowest of recent years, after Arsenal's Invincibles of 2003-04 reached 73 points after 29 games, followed in subsequent seasons by Chelsea (74 and 75 in their two title-winning seasons) and United, whose hat-trick of title wins were achieved off totals of 72, 67 and 65 at this stage.

It is interesting that the numbers have been decreasing back into the lower 60s since those incredible mid-70s figures and that could be read as a sign that the elite are not as strong as before, if it were not for the continued high level of achievement in the Champions League.

A possible explanation for the lower figures this season is that the title race is genuinely a three-horse race, with the finishing line likely to be around 81 or 82 points. At current rates, United, Chelsea and Arsenal could finish within a point of each other, so everything is set for the closest finish since United pipped Arsenal by a single point in the famous treble-winning season of 1998-99.

All three teams could top the table at various points this weekend, with Chelsea first to play at home to West Ham tonight. Having restored normal service at Stamford Bridge with last weekend's 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final win over Stoke, Chelsea should score another comfortable victory. They have won six out of six at home to bottom-half teams in the Premier League this season, plus two out of two against that same level of opposition in cup competitions, with 29 goals for and just four against in those eight games.

There are two strong trends in those results: seven of the eight have had over 2.5 goals and six have been won by a margin of two goals or more. Both are short odds for tonight's match, but possibly not short enough, and slight preference is for Chelsea on the Handicap HAD with West Ham having scored only one goal in five away games against top-half teams.

Next to go for top spot are Arsenal, who are away to Hull in tonight's late kick-off. There is bad blood between these teams, which adds some spice to the occasion but is unlikely to derail Arsenal, who are building up a head of steam at just the right time.

Arsenal have lost all four big games against United and Chelsea, which was the basis for many to write them off as serious title challengers, but almost unnoticed they have been doing the dirty work most effectively this season. Against bottom-half teams, Arsenal have won 12 out of 15 and dropped only seven points out of a possible 45 - a strong record that has kept them in contention and gives them a real title chance, given that five of their remaining nine games are against bottom-half opponents.

Arsenal are not a sure-fire bet to win on the Handicap HAD, but most of their wins on the road are achieved by a clear margin, with five out of seven by two goals or more.

United could be in third place by the time they kick off at home to Fulham tomorrow, but victory would put them back on top. They have the toughest task of the top three, but a significant factor against Fulham is that they have to travel again following Thursday's 3-1 defeat at Juventus, whereas United have had more rest since their home win over Milan on Wednesday.

Wayne Rooney is worth considering for first goalscorer.

Fortress Old Trafford

Straight home wins for Manchester United against Fulham, by an aggregate of 17 goals to four: 6

Rampant Rooney

Out of 13 home league games in which Wayne Rooney has scored, seven as first scorer: 10

Proud record

Consecutive league wins for Manchester City against Sunderland, going back almost a decade: 9

Shortlist: Frankfurt, Wolfsburg, Coventry, Newcastle, Swindon, Bristol Rovers, Colchester, Genoa, Roma, Werder Bremen.

Top five bets

1 Coventry home win

Pushing for the play-offs after a run of six wins in their last seven home games

2 Newcastle on handicap

Only one defeat in last 21 in the league and a good bet for derby victory

3 Bristol Rovers home win

Visitors Tranmere have lost nine out of 11 away to teams above the bottom eight

4 Genoa home win

High-scoring home team face Cagliari, who have lost seven out of eight away when conceding

5 Roma away win

Unbeaten in 17 in the league and should be too strong for struggling Livorno