with Nick Pulford
The midweek Champions League matches offered a neat synopsis of where the English challengers stand right now. While Chelsea and Arsenal are in top gear and scoring for fun, Manchester United continue to splutter along and Tottenham cannot help mixing good and bad.
It's back to the Premier League now and the title aspirants will be casting an anxious eye at Chelsea, who are highly likely to extend their 100 per cent record - and quite possibly their lead in the table - when they host Blackpool at Stamford Bridge in the final fixture on the weekend programme.
United, by contrast, have not had a good week, with and without Wayne Rooney, and now they face the prospect of falling at least six points behind Chelsea if they are unable to beat Liverpool at Old Trafford.
United have let vital points slip by conceding late goals at Fulham and Everton and the turnaround at Goodison Park last Saturday was so uncharacteristic it was the first time in the past decade United had let a two-goal lead slip in the Premier League.
That has cranked up the pressure on United for the clash with Liverpool. And they know they will have to raise their game after Tuesday's goalless draw at home to Rangers in the Champions League.
The good news is that in their other five matches this season United have scored at least two goals and the disjointed performance against Rangers was at least partly explained by the wholesale changes to the team by Alex Ferguson.
United won their first two home league games of the season at a canter - 3-0 against both Newcastle and West Ham - and, while Liverpool are a considerable step up in class, their long-term home form is excellent.
In the past three seasons United have won 49 of their 57 home league games and last season they were more potent than ever, scoring 52 home goals at an average of 2.74 goals per game.
Liverpool, by contrast, are far from a free-scoring team at the moment, despite Thursday's 4-1 home win over Steaua in the Europa League. The more telling factor is that they have scored only two goals in four Premier League games and have had blanks in both away fixtures.
Much will be made of Fernando Torres's excellent record against United, but he is struggling to find his best form and may be easier to nullify this time.
With that in mind, Roy Hodgson is likely to play to type by setting up Liverpool as being hard to beat. That was his style with Fulham and, while it seems more unadventurous now that he has better players at his disposal, Hodgson is sticking with his tried and trusted methods.
United have been held goalless in just three of their 57 home league games in the past three seasons and have won an incredible 91 per cent when scoring, so the odds seem to underestimate their chance of success tomorrow night. As such they rate one of the best bets of the weekend.
Arsenal look the most vulnerable of the early pacesetters, with a tricky trip to Sunderland. Manchester City have already been beaten at the Stadium of Light and Sunderland lost just three of their 19 league games there last season, when one of their best results was a 1-0 win over Arsenal.
United and Chelsea both won at the Stadium of Light last season and victory there is becoming a key test of whether a team is up to winning the title, which makes Arsenal's result tonight of special interest.
Arsene Wenger's team are capable of destroying any team when they get on top, as Braga found on Wednesday night, and they showed another side to their game in their last away league match, when toughing out a 2-1 win at Blackburn. But last season they won only one more away game than they lost and, until they show more consistency on the road, they are far from a banker bet at short odds.
Chelsea and Tottenham have much easier tasks in their respective home games against Blackpool and Wolves. A 6-0 defeat at Arsenal puts Blackpool into true perspective at this rarefied level and Chelsea are likely to make it 10 wins by at least two goals in their 12 home league games in 2010. The expectation is for better than that, with Chelsea 1.60 at -2 on the Handicap HAD and over 3.5 goals at 1.72, but there is no value in backing big-margin Chelsea wins.
Tottenham had one of their occasional blips at White Hart Lane when beaten 1-0 by Wigan last time, and they have yet to score there in the league this season, but they should get back on track tonight. One of those blips last season was against Wolves, who won this fixture 1-0, but Tottenham usually bounce back well (they thrashed Manchester City 3-0 four days after the Wolves defeat).
In fact, following their five failures to win at home last season, Tottenham won their next home league game every time and scored at least two goals on each occasion. They look decent value at odds-against on the Handicap HAD.
Stoke are another team with a strong home record, especially against the lesser teams, and they should add to West Ham's woes. West Brom, unbeaten at home, are worth considering in their derby match against Birmingham.
Shortlist: Stoke, Stuttgart, Cardiff, Mallorca, Bari, Manchester United, Parma, Auxerre
Top 5 bets
1 Stoke home win
Got off the mark against Villa and should overpower West Ham
2 Stuttgart home win
Look ready to score after midweek Europa League win
3 Mallorca home win
Have problems but their island fortress remains a tough venue
4 Man Utd home win
Exceptionally strong home record is underrated at the odds
5 Auxerre on Handicap HAD
Much closer to hosts Lille than the odds suggest