with Nick Pulford
Manchester United have the opportunity to strike the first blow in the English Premier League title race this weekend when they could move 10 points clear with victory over Fulham tonight - but they will have to cope without star striker Wayne Rooney following his suspension for a foul-mouthed outburst into the TV cameras.
Rooney's absence might be overplayed, as United's record without him in the starting line-up is eye-catchingly good. Since the start of last season, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have won 11 out of 16 and lost only one when he hasn't started. United's points average in those games is 2.31, slightly more than the 2.22 average with Rooney.
Fulham have had the good fortune to face a Rooney-less United in both league meetings this season and on the first occasion, at Craven Cottage in August, they twice pegged back United to secure a 2-2 draw. That marked the start of United's draw tendency on the road, but it has been a different story at Old Trafford.
It is just over a year since United's last home defeat in the Premier League, 2-1 by Chelsea, and in the interim they have won 16 out of 17, scoring 47 goals to 10.
United haven't lost at home to a team that finished outside the top six for more than three years and overall - since the start of the 2007-08 season - they have won a remarkable 48 out of 53 against visitors to Old Trafford from outside the top six.
That makes United unopposable even in Rooney's absence and in the past year the go-to alternative to the straight win has been the United win-win on the HaFu, which has come up in 14 of their 16 home wins in that period. Eight of their 11 games this season against sides from outside the top six have had over 2.5 goals, so that is another option at better odds than the straight win.
Arsenal have the chance to claw back some of the leeway in the title race when they travel to Blackpool tomorrow night. This would have looked a formality if Arsenal had managed to win a similar game on their last away trip to West Brom, but instead they could manage only a hard-earned 2-2 draw.
That was followed last weekend by a second successive goalless draw at home and the Carling Cup final defeat certainly appears to have deflated Arsene Wenger's squad. Their only win in six games since then was against Leyton Orient of League One in the FA Cup.
The recent goalless draws came against Sunderland and Blackburn, who had been struggling for form, so it is not greatly encouraging that Blackpool are second-bottom of the eight-match form table, sandwiched between Blackburn and Sunderland.
Arsenal clearly should win - as title rivals United, Chelsea and Manchester City have done at Blackpool - but their banker status is open to question.
Another team whose season is in danger of unravelling is Tottenham, who need a miracle to revive their Champions League dream and are falling off the pace in the battle to secure another entry to that competition.
Tonight they host Stoke, whose campaign is coming to the boil with next weekend's FA Cup semi-final to look forward to, and it might not be easy for Harry Redknapp's team.
Tottenham have not been so prolific at home this season, with just three wins by two or more goals compared with eight last season, and Stoke could reward support on the handicap. The doubt with Stoke is whether Tony Pulis will decide to rest key players for the semi-final and it will be worth checking the team line-ups.
Bolton, who play Stoke in the semi-final, might also take the opportunity to rest players and visitors West Ham are worth backing on the handicap.
Bolton's home record is solid but the draw rate is quite high and they often concede, which gives the opposition a chance.
West Ham are undefeated in the eight away games in which they have scored (two wins, six draws) and have scored in eight of their 12 league games overall in 2011, which suggests they have a good chance of scoring tonight.
The other match where the visitors make strong appeal is Wolves v Everton. The hosts have beaten both Manchester clubs and Chelsea at home but remain infuriatingly inconsistent, as they proved again last weekend when they followed a 1-0 win at Aston Villa with a 4-1 defeat away to Newcastle.
Everton, by contrast, won 2-1 at Newcastle in their last away game and have lost just three out of 12 in the league in 2011 (against Arsenal, Bolton and Stoke).
David Moyes' side have won only one of their previous five meetings with Wolves in the Premier League, but this is a good chance and they are a solid bet on the handicap.
Among the home teams, Sunderland stand out against West Brom. Steve Bruce's team are coming off a run of tough fixtures and their run-in is much easier, as long as their confidence has not been shattered by a string of poor results that was capped by last weekend's 5-0 defeat at Manchester City.
Chelsea, having beaten Wigan 8-0 (home) and 6-0 (away) in their most recent meetings, should record another clear-cut win against the bottom club and rate a good bet on the handicap.
Shortlist: Everton, Sunderland, Leiceseter, Lazio, Dortmund, Liverpool
1 Sunderland home win
Good value to find form against easier opposition
2 Leicester home win
High scores on the road suggest form is turning around
3 Lazio home win
Another good chance for Italy's joint-best home side
4 Dortmund away win
Have excelled on the road against the top teams
5 Liverpool on handicap
Good chance against unadventurous Manchester City