with Nick Pulford
The English Premier League heads into 2011 with the two Manchester clubs locked together at the top on 38 points - only the second time since the league's inception in 1992 that the year has started with joint leaders.
With Arsenal just behind on 36 points, and Chelsea and Tottenham within touching distance, the second half of the title race is set to be one of the tightest and most exciting in years.
At this point it is worth pondering how this has come about, and the clearest conclusion to draw is that it is not the result of a more even spread of the elite standards set in recent years by Manchester United and Chelsea.
The three apparent challengers - Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham - have not done any better by this stage than they had last season. City have 38 points from 20 games, exactly the same total they had at the same stage last season - mostly gained before Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes as coach.
Arsenal were challenging even more strongly last season, when they were just one point off the lead with 41 points after 19 games (five points better than this season).
And Tottenham have also regressed slightly this season, dropping back one point from last season's 34 points at this stage of the campaign.
Manchester United are the only team among the top five who are on course to better last season's performance - their haul of 38 points from their first 18 games is one better than last season. That makes them worthy title favourites, especially as they have a proven ability to last the course in the season-long marathon.
The biggest reason for the tightness of the title race is that Chelsea have gone backwards. If they had matched last season's performance in their opening 19 games, they would be four points ahead instead of four behind in the title race.
Whether Chelsea can improve in the second half of the season will be a key factor in determining whether the title battle remains wide open or develops into the two-horse race between Chelsea and United that has been the norm in recent years.
Notwithstanding the 3-0 defeat by Sunderland, Chelsea remain strong at home and most of their problems have been on the road, particularly against bottom-half teams. Their points average in that category has dropped by almost a point to 1.33, but their average against top-half teams has barely fallen (to 1.78 from last season's 1.83), which suggests they haven't declined as much as many pundits believe.
With both Manchester clubs and Tottenham still to visit Stamford Bridge, Chelsea are going to have a big say in the outcome of the championship and they remain a team to back in the big home games, having won four out of five against top-half teams at the Bridge (the exception being the defeat by Sunderland).
As for tomorrow's home game against Aston Villa, Chelsea should win handsomely as their goal difference in four home games against bottom-half teams is 10 goals to one. Back Chelsea at -1 on the Handicap HAD.
Villa are coming off a 4-0 defeat at Manchester City, a bad result for them but the kind of performance that suggests City are genuine title contenders. City currently top the away form table with exactly two points per game, which is a big improvement on their 1.42 last season.
Their weak point so far has been their home form, as their 1.80 points per game makes them the only one of the top five to be averaging fewer points at home than on the road. The charge levelled at Mancini is that he is too negative at home, but the Villa result suggests rising confidence in the squad.
City have winnable home games all the way up to the end of March, starting tonight against Blackpool and continuing with Wolves, West Brom, Fulham and Wigan. They will have to be wary of Blackpool, whose total of five away wins is bettered only by City, but their title odds of 10.00 will contract if their home form takes off.
United look the most solid of the elite teams, having gone undefeated through their first 19 games, but it is arguable that they have failed to take sufficient advantage of their rivals' slip-ups. It is asking a lot for United to remain unbeaten (they lost at least four games in each of their three recent title-winning campaigns) and their away form in particular does not suggest invincibility.
Tonight they face a decent test at West Brom, who gave United a scare in a 2-2 at Old Trafford in October, and they are a risk at the odds.
Arsenal have the talent, but look as fragile as ever. Even more than United, they may regret missed opportunities in the first half of the campaign, when home defeats by West Brom and Newcastle stalled their momentum.
And tonight is no easy game at Birmingham, who continue to be draw specialists at home to the big teams, most recently with the midweek 1-1 against United.
Tottenham are close enough on paper to mount a title challenge, but they will have to raise their game considerably, as their points average last season was 1.84 and this season it is 1.74. The lowest points average of Premier League champions was Manchester United's 1.97 in 1996-97, so even in a weaker year Tottenham are likely to come up short.
Defeats in 28 home league games for Birmingham since promotion: 3
Shortlist: Leeds, Millwall, Cardiff, Coventry, Hull, QPR, Derby, Plymouth, Valencia, Mallorca
Top 5 bets
1 Leeds home win
Unbeaten in 11 despite a worrying tendency to give away leads
2 Millwall home win
Won the reverse fixture and visitors Palace have a poor away record
3 Coventry home win
Six wins out of eight at home to teams below them in the table
4 Hull home win
On a good run and value chance against poor travellers Leicester
5 QPR on handicap