with Nick Pulford
Four of the top five sides in the Premier League are in opposition this weekend, and those clashes will go a long way towards deciding the final order among the elite teams. If the form and stats are any guide, the outcome will be that Manchester United and Chelsea march on to a final showdown next weekend, while Arsenal and Tottenham are left to worry about their Champions League places.
Chelsea have the opportunity to crank up the pressure on United when they host Tottenham tonight in a game that could move them to three points behind the leaders and virtually end the Champions League ambitions of Harry Redknapp's side.
A Chelsea victory would test United's nerve when they visit Arsenal tomorrow night, but at the same time United know they can avoid a nervous climax to the season by winning at the Emirates. If Arsenal are beaten, meanwhile, they risk losing third place - and direct entry to the Champions League - to Manchester City, who look a shoo-in at home to West Ham tomorrow.
The stats point to wins for Chelsea and United. Chelsea have a remarkable record in the Premier League against Tottenham, having lost only three out of 37 overall - Chelsea's home record is: won 12, drawn six.
And United are unbeaten in their past seven meetings with Arsenal, winning six. In their past two visits to the Emirates, United have won 3-1 both times and a similar result looks on the cards if the leaders reproduce the form they showed at Schalke on Tuesday in their 2-0 Champions League semi-final victory.
There should be no concern about a hangover from that heady night as United have won eight out of 10 following Champions League ties this season.
The form tables are illuminating, too. Chelsea are top over the past eight games and United close behind in third, but Arsenal and Tottenham are in mid-table with just two wins apiece from their past eight games. A hallmark of a top team is the ability to finish a season strongly, and it is one stamped clearly on Chelsea and United.
United on the handicap is the best bet in the big games, with the safety net worth having because the leaders might be happy enough with a point.
The eight-game form table also shows the relegation strugglers have been unable to lift their form significantly with the exception of West Brom (one defeat in eight under Roy Hodgson), who appear to have done enough to survive but look a decent chance to make sure with a home victory over Aston Villa.
The big relegation clash is Birmingham v Wolves tomorrow, and the key factor in assessing this match might be the head-to-head form involving bottom-six teams. Birmingham are unbeaten in that category at home, with two wins and two draws, and overall have lost only two out of nine, which suggests they will be hard to beat. Wolves, meanwhile, have lost all four on the road against other bottom-six teams and scored only once.
There is not enough in Birmingham's form to make them a good win bet at the odds, but only the draw makes any appeal as an alternative. Under 2.5 goals might look obvious, but the bottom-six stats suggest it's more of a 50-50 call with overs, so there could be a higher goals tally than the market expects.
Blackburn have gone 10 games since their last win, more than three months ago, and they are just a point above the relegation zone. Six of those games have been defeats and two of the four draws have been goalless, so there is little to suggest they can find the wins they need to keep their heads above water, even though two of their last four games are against teams below them in the table.
A derby atmosphere might revive them in tonight's home game against Bolton. The fragile away form of the visitors, which took another knock in midweek with a 3-0 defeat at Fulham, is a source of encouragement for Blackburn. Bolton have found it difficult to win on the road but have lost only three when scoring, which suggests they can get a draw.
Blackpool, another northwestern team in freefall, face a crunch match at home to Stoke. Since the turn of the year, Blackpool have taken only nine points out of a possible 51 (compared with 25 out of 51 before that), winning two and losing 12 of those 17 games.
Intriguingly, the two wins were at home against Tottenham and Liverpool, but Blackpool have won only two more of their home games and have the lowest home points tally in the league. Stoke, like Bolton, are not good travellers (one point from their past eight away games) but have to be the handicap pick.
Everton, who lie second in the current form table in between Chelsea and United, look another hot team to follow and are worth supporting away to Wigan, another of the strugglers who look unable to drag themselves out of the mire.
Since a goalless draw at home to Wigan in December, Everton have won eight out of 17 overall and lost just four. More significantly, they have won five and drawn four of their nine games during that run against bottom-half teams.
Bridge too far
The number of years since Tottenham have won at Stamford Bridge: 21
Shortlist: Everton, Manchester United, Sevilla, Malaga, Lazio, Hannover
TOP FIVE BETS
1 Everton on handicap
Rank fifth in the Premier League on 2011 form
2 Sevilla away win
Hosts Almeria have lost their last five and are there for the taking
3 Malaga home win
On the up after four wins in their last six games
4 Lazio home win
Ten wins out of 14 at home to teams below them in the table
5 Hannover home win
Have won nine out of 11 at home to teams outside the top six