with Nick Pulford
Alex Ferguson was only half right last week when he said Manchester United's showdowns with Chelsea would be crucial in deciding the outcome of the English Premier League title race. Arsenal, too, are likely to have a say in the argument at the top and they have the chance to put their case tomorrow night when they visit Stamford Bridge for the match of the weekend.
Ferguson was correct in identifying Chelsea as the main barrier to title success, and that goes for Arsenal just as much as it does for United. Like United, Arsenal lost home and away to Chelsea last season and clearly the Gunners' title hopes hinge on getting a better return from matches against their main rivals.
That will not be easy at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea have won 20 of their 22 home league games under Carlo Ancelotti. Last season Chelsea won seven out of nine at home to top-half finishers, scoring in every game while keeping a clean sheet six times. At both ends of the pitch Chelsea are a formidable force and Arsenal have had little joy against them in the past five seasons, winning just two of their 13 meetings and losing nine.
In those five seasons, there have been two key players in Chelsea-Arsenal matches and only one of them will be in action this time. That is Didier Drogba, who has scored 12 goals in that period - just over half of Chelsea's total. Last season Drogba netted twice in the 3-0 win at the Emirates, with a Thomas Vermaelen own goal (under pressure from Drogba) sandwiched in between, and then he scored both goals in Chelsea's 2-0 victory in the return match at Stamford Bridge.
That was not the first time Drogba had made the difference against Arsenal, because he scored the winner in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final clash and both goals when Chelsea came from behind to win 2-1 in the 2007 League Cup final.
Robin van Persie had a similar impact for Arsenal when he scored both goals in their last win over Chelsea, in the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge in November 2008. Last season he was absent for the two games against Chelsea and it seems more than coincidence that Arsenal failed to score on both occasions.
Van Persie is missing again and so too are Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner, the only other Arsenal players to have scored against Chelsea in the past two seasons. At least this time Arsenal have a player to lead the line in summer signing Marouane Chamakh, who has been impressive so far. But he is unproven at this level and it is asking a lot of him to make the difference.
As for containing the threat posed by Drogba, it is highly questionable whether Arsenal's new-look defence will be the answer. They have kept only one clean sheet in their opening six games - compared with four for Chelsea - and last weekend they were ripped apart at the Emirates by West Brom.
Drogba will be fresh for this match, having missed the midweek Champions League win through suspension, and his physical power is likely to be too much for Arsenal again. Chelsea look good value for the win and so does Drogba to be first goalscorer.
Manchester United, having failed to take full advantage of Chelsea's defeat against Manchester City when they were held at Bolton last weekend, will be looking to do better tonight at Sunderland.
The visit to the Stadium of Light looks a tougher task than last week's trip, with Sunderland already having beaten Manchester City and drawn with Arsenal at home this season. That has continued Sunderland's formidable home record under Steve Bruce, which has seen them lose only three out of 22.
Two of those defeats, however, were against United and Chelsea last season and this looks a good-value opportunity to back United for another away win. Last season United had the Premier League's highest win rate on the road, with 11 wins out of 19, and only an uncharacteristic tendency to concede late goals has denied them an away victory this time.
The slip-ups at Fulham and Everton should turn out to be merely a couple of blips and the midweek Champions League win at Spanish leaders Valencia was a more typical United away performance.
The encouraging aspect of United's away form is that they have scored every time - their only blank this season was in the goalless home draw against Rangers in the Champions League - and that is a key factor, because last season they won 11 out of 14 away league games when they scored.
With Sunderland having conceded in 16 of their 22 home league games under Bruce, the chance of a United victory looks better than the odds suggest.
The best bets elsewhere in the Premier League are home wins for Tottenham and Stoke.
Tottenham are coming off an exciting midweek home win over Twente in the Champions League and they are reasonable value to inflict Gerard Houllier's first defeat as Aston Villa manager. This should be another entertaining contest and over 2.5 goals looks a decent bet too.
The purists will be less keen to watch Stoke v Blackburn, but punters will be attracted by the odds available on Stoke, whose home record remains strong, especially against teams outside the elite. Blackburn avoided defeat in only one of their away games against the top 13 last season.
Shortlist: Tottenham, Chelsea, Lille, Manchester United, Sampdoria, Marseille
Top 5 bets
1 Chelsea home win Likely to bully Arsenal into submission again
2 Lille home win Still unbeaten and can win tight contest
3 Manchester United away win Won't be fazed by Sunderland's giant-killing reputation
4 Marseille away win Can end St Etienne's flying start to the season
5 Sampdoria away win Close to being fully recovered from Champions League hangover