with Nick Pulford
December promises to be a pivotal month in the English Premier League title race, starting with this weekend's double header between last season's top four - Tottenham v Chelsea tomorrow and Manchester United v Arsenal on Monday night. With those games to come, tonight's action seems to belong in a different league.
As a bellwether of the title race, few games are as important as the Manchester United-Arsenal clashes and, as they prepare for their first meeting of the season at Old Trafford, they sit first and second in the table - a rare turn of events since Chelsea emerged as United's main rival in the Roman Abramovich era.
For almost a decade before that, the teams moulded by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger duelled for supremacy and, more often than not, their head-to-heads proved to be crucial. In Wenger's three title-winning seasons, Arsenal were never beaten by United, home or away, while United came out on top in their head-to-heads with Wenger's Arsenal in five of their past eight championship successes.
Arsenal's league record at Old Trafford when they have gone on to win the title is won two, drawn one, while they have lost five, drawn two and won only one in their title-less seasons, which suggests avoiding defeat on Monday (and, even better, winning) would be a significant sign that they have what it takes to scratch the seven-year itch since their last championship success.
The decline in Arsenal's competitiveness in the games that really matter is clear from their results against United since the Invincibles won the Gunners' last title in the 2003-04 season. At Old Trafford, Arsenal's post-Invincibles record is lost seven out of nine, with just one win, and overall they have won just four of 18 against United.
Arsenal's place at the top of the away standings, with five wins out of eight, suggests they have improved, but that impression could be misleading. Three of the wins were against teams currently in the bottom six and the only victory against a top-half side was the 3-0 success at Manchester City, where the early dismissal of City's Dedryck Boyata was a major factor in the outcome.
Their latest visit to Manchester is likely to be tougher, with United unbeaten in 27 Premier League and Champions League games since early April, when back-to-back defeats by Chelsea and Bayern Munich delivered mortal blows to their pursuit of the big trophies.
United have had only one other defeat in 2010 in the competitions that matter and, despite their occasionally lacklustre form this season, they deserve to be strong favourites on Monday. Their odds look a little too short - 1.9 would be nearer the mark - but they are difficult to oppose.
Chelsea have the chance to regain top spot tomorrow with victory at Tottenham, but winning at White Hart Lane is no easy task nowadays.
Tottenham have developed into one of the most exciting home teams in Europe and their big-match record at White Hart Lane is impressive - five wins out of seven against top-eight teams last season and high-scoring victories in their three Champions League games this season.
Harry Redknapp's side are still inclined to throw in the occasional stinker - such as August's 1-0 home defeat by Wigan - and they have developed a worrying trait of allowing their opponents to score first this season, but Chelsea know better than most that the Lilywhites have not been so lily-livered since Redknapp took charge.
For a long time, Chelsea could almost count on three points at White Hart Lane, with nine wins and no defeats from their first 14 Premier League visits, but Redknapp has won both his home games against Chelsea.
Manchester United, in fact, are the only big team to have resisted the new-look Tottenham, with a win and a draw from their two visits to the Redknapp stronghold. Against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, however, Redknapp's Tottenham have won nine out of 12 at home in league and cup with no defeats.
That points to Tottenham being a good bet on the handicap at least, especially with Chelsea far from their early season form. With two wins from their last eight games in the Premier League and Champions League, Chelsea have found their two towers of strength - a mean defence and a free-scoring attack - crumbling beneath them.
Carlo Ancelotti's team have kept just one clean sheet in those eight games and only once since late September have they scored more than two goals in a match, which was a regular occurrence in the first month of the season.
While attention is focused on the big head-to-heads, Manchester City have an excellent opportunity to continue their stealthy progress into title contention with victory tonight at bottom club West Ham.
City have won three out of five against bottom-half teams this season and they are unbeaten in the Premier League since their only defeat in that category, 2-1 at Wolves six weeks ago.
West Ham's only win against a top-eight side was the 1-0 home victory over Tottenham and they have lost their other seven in that category while scoring just two goals, which suggests they will struggle to break through a City defence that has kept a clean sheet in half of the opening 16 games.
The home teams to consider are Stoke and Bolton. On the ratings Aston Villa should be on the list too, but Gerard Houllier's erratic handling of his new job is cause for concern.
Shortlist: Frankfurt, Leverkusen, Manchester City, Cardiff, Ipswich, Villarreal, Marseille, Cagliari, Gijon, Mainz, Sampdoria, Manchester United
TOP FIVE BETS
1 Leverkusen away win
On a great run and are the only team to have beaten runaway leaders Dortmund
2 Manchester City away win
Should continue their solid form with victory at West Ham
3 Villareal away win
Seven wins out of 10 against teams outside the top six
4 Cagliari home win
Sardinia to win battle of islanders against poor travellers from Sicily
5 Mainz home win
Can make it eight out of eight against bottom-half opponents