Six games into the season and already Manchester City face a make-or-break showdown with Premier League leaders Chelsea in tonight's early kick-off. This is the match of the weekend and City need to win if they are to be taken seriously as title contenders.
City may be in the top four, as most people expected them to be this season, but there is a seven-point gap to Chelsea and defeat tonight would leave Roberto Mancini's team with a mountain to climb. The same old problems have been evident this season, with a tendency to give away costly goals - a 90th-minute penalty that resulted in a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland and the defensive mix-up that allowed Blackburn to take a point at Eastlands.
Mancini has also paid the price for being too negative on the road and has left his players relying on their strong home form to maintain any semblance of a title challenge. City won five of nine at home to top-half finishers last season, including a 2-1 win over Chelsea, and they will have to reproduce that if they are to finish any higher than last season.
There must be a decent chance for City to prove their worth in tonight's showdown, as Chelsea's poor away form might be exposed again at Eastlands. A key factor in Chelsea's title success last season was their away wins against Manchester United and Arsenal, but they managed only one other away victory at the next seven teams.
It is not easy to explain why Chelsea should be found wanting so often against the teams in between. City's home record suggests it will be hard for Carlo Ancelotti's team to win tonight.
Although Chelsea have started strongly, tonight is their first big test and it is worth noting that against one of the top teams - the Community Shield clash with Manchester United - they were beaten 3-1.
It would be foolish to read too much into that result, as it would be into Chelsea's results so far against teams likely to finish in the bottom half of the table, but there is enough in the form to suggest they are vulnerable. The advice is to go for City on the handicap HAD.
If Chelsea drop points, Arsenal and Manchester United have excellent chances to make up ground. United should justify short odds at Bolton, having won 10 of the past 11 meetings with their northwest neighbours, while Arsenal should be backed on the handicap again at home to West Brom.
Of Arsenal's past 21 home victories, 19 have been by two goals or more, making the handicap HAD better value than the straight win.
Gerard Houllier has taken charge at Aston Villa at last and, having started with a Carling Cup home win over Blackburn, now faces a derby at Wolves.
A change in Villa's counter-attacking style is unlikely in the short term and they are capable of continuing the excellent away record forged during Martin O'Neill's reign. Last season Villa won eight of 14 away to teams that finished below them, with only two defeats, and that record makes them good value tomorrow night.
Wolves are one of only three teams yet to keep a clean sheet and that suggests problems against Villa, who have an excellent win record when scoring.
Another good bet are Birmingham, who are at home to low-scoring Wigan. Among Birmingham's strengths last season was their home record against bottom-half teams, with seven wins out of 10, one against Wigan.
There is always a risk with Birmingham because they are a low-scoring team and have a low win rate when conceding (six wins out of 27 last season), but that concern is lessened by Wigan's much worse scoring record.
Strangely enough, Wigan's only away goal this season earned them a 1-0 win at Tottenham, but that type of result is out of the ordinary for Roberto Martinez's team. Under Martinez, Wigan have won only four of 20 on the road and lost 14. Ten defeats were against top-12 finishers last season and Birmingham are likely to be among that group again.
Everton's slow start could continue at Fulham, who are the only unbeaten team outside the top three.
A high draw rate is becoming a hallmark of Mark Hughes' teams. He had drawn eight of 17 league before leaving Manchester City last season, but Fulham are showing promising signs.
Roy Hodgson, having left Fulham for Liverpool, is finding his strict tactics less effective at the bigger club and he will be under intense scrutiny when Sunderland visit Anfield tonight.
It is difficult to be confident about Sunderland, who have won only two out of 21 on the road under Steve Bruce and have lost 14, but this could be an upset and Liverpool's odds look way too short.
Spurs on a streak
Games without defeat for Tottenham against West Ham: 8
Luck of the draw
Draws out of five for still unbeaten Fulham: 4
Shortlist: Birmingham, Nottingham Forest, Doncaster, Lyon, Lazio, Sampdoria, Aston Villa, Lille.
Top five bets
1 Nottingham Forest home win
Sure to come good soon and Swansea's away record is poor
2 Doncaster on handicap HAD
Good start does not flatter them and they can trouble leaders QPR
3 Lyon home win
Home form is solid and they should halt St Etienne's fast start
4 Lazio away win
For once their odds look good value following a good start
5 Aston Villa away win
Have the goal threat to take derby victory at Wolves