with Nick Pulford
The English Premier League table has assumed a predictable shape already, with Manchester City perhaps having most cause to feel satisfied after emerging unscathed from two tough games. Now, having taken four points out of six against Tottenham and Liverpool, tomorrow's visit to Sunderland will reveal more about their ability to keep pace with the established elite teams.
Negative on the road and positive at home, Roberto Mancini's game plan has worked so far, and the 3-0 home win over Liverpool was a clear signal of intent. The opening goalless draw at White Hart Lane was less flashy, but perhaps just as significant given that Tottenham had beaten City home and away last season.
With their opening two results, City are already three points better off than they were from the equivalent fixtures last season, and the next task is to improve their return from matches against the rump of the division. Last season, City gave up 10 points to Chelsea in games against teams outside the top eight, and nine to Manchester United, and it is vital they close that gap if they are to be contenders.
Tomorrow's match would be a good place to start because, while City drew at Sunderland last season, Chelsea and United both won there. Sunderland's only other home defeat was against Aston Villa, who were an excellent away side under Martin O'Neill.
A City victory would be another sign of improvement, but it looks too early to be putting great faith in City at odds-on. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool were all beaten at the Stadium of Light last season, and it would be no great surprise if Sunderland dealt an early blow to City's title hopes. On the handicap at least, Sunderland look decent value.
Arsenal are the other title hopefuls with a tricky match, although they could go top briefly if they win tonight's early kick-off at Blackburn. That won't be easy because, like Sunderland, Blackburn lost only three out of 19 at home last season. Arsenal were beaten 2-1 at Ewood Park in May, and both Chelsea and Manchester United were held to draws there last season, so once again it is a risk to back the Gunners at odds-on. Arsenal on top form are capable of blowing away most teams, but Rovers boss Sam Allardyce has enjoyed notable success at stifling Arsene Wenger's teams and Blackburn could be worth backing on the handicap.
Several of the obvious suspects have gathered at the bottom of the table, and for Stoke, West Ham and Wigan there is unlikely to be an early escape from the bottom three as they visit Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham, respectively.
Chelsea have built their title-winning seasons around exceptionally strong form at Stamford Bridge, and their opening 6-0 home win over West Brom showed they have taken up where they left off last season. In their two title successes under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea won 32 out of 38 at home, and last season under Carlo Ancelotti they won 17 out of 19.
Twelve of their 16 dropped points at home in those campaigns were against teams who finished in the top nine, which suggests Stoke are highly unlikely to halt them today. In their previous Premier League visits to Stamford Bridge, Stoke have lost 7-0 and 2-1, as well as 2-0 in the FA Cup, so it is reasonable to expect more than two goals and at least a two-goal winning margin.
West Ham, having lost 3-0 at Aston Villa and 3-1 at home to Bolton, have put themselves in difficulty from the start, and now life becomes even tougher with tonight's game at Old Trafford to be followed by Chelsea at Upton Park.
The Hammers' defence conceded 66 goals last season - as many as bottom club Portsmouth - and with no sign of improvement, they look likely to struggle again this term. West Ham have lost on six of their past seven visits to Old Trafford - the exception was their final-day escape in the 2006-07 season, when they needed victory to avoid relegation and the Red Devils were already champions - and four of those defeats have been by three goals or more, so the omens are not good.
Tottenham stand alongside Chelsea and Manchester United as banker material tonight, and on current form they could get close to a repeat of last season's 9-1 home win over Wigan. Harry Redknapp's team are on a high after securing their place in the Champions League group stage and have started the season well, apart from a crazy opening half-hour against Young Boys in their play-off in Berne.
Blackpool make their belated home debut in the Premier League tonight when they host Fulham - opponents who are probably somewhere between the Wigan and Arsenal teams the newcomers visited on the first two weekends of the season.
Blackpool's contrasting results make it difficult to assess their true merit, but Fulham are coming off an excellent home draw against Manchester United and could be one of the season's improvers.
Their odds look short enough, but later in the season they might seem a steal if Blackpool turn out to be as out of their depth as most pundits envisaged at the start of the season.
Bolton are showing signs of improvement too and Owen Coyle's attacking policy could give them the edge over low-scoring Birmingham, who have been giving up plenty of chances this season.
Shortlist: Fulham, QPR, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Bolton, Monaco, Palermo.
Top five bets
1 Fulham away win
Excellent opportunity to register their first league win for Mark Hughes
2 QPR away win
Early Championship pacesetters are much improved under Neil Warnock
3 Ipswich home win
Roy Keane's promising side can add to Bristol City's problems
4 Nottingham Forest home win
Have won 21 of their past 27 home league games and look good value
5 Palermo home win
Italy's fourth-best home team last season and should be strong again