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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2011, 12:00am

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Now we will find out how good Alex Ferguson's latest Manchester United team are.

At the end of the month they will face the daunting task of taking on Barcelona in the Champions League final, but first they must repel the renewed challenge from Chelsea in the English Premier League title race.

Having succumbed to Manchester City and Arsenal in their most recent crunch games against elite domestic opponents, United must prove themselves in tomorrow's Old Trafford clash with Chelsea.

The visitors have made up 12 points on United in the past two months and Chelsea will be top on goal difference by tomorrow night if United are beaten again.The jury is still out on whether United are the real deal or merely the best of a bad bunch in a below-average Premier League season.

A trophy double would silence the doubters, but for now the questions remain unanswered.

Ferguson mounted a defence of United's away form before last week's visit to Arsenal, but defeat undermined his case. United couldn't score and were beaten despite knowing that a draw would give them enough breathing space whatever the result against Chelsea tomorrow - two fatal flaws that suggested they are well short of previous United teams, such as the never-say-die treble winners of 1999.

If they hold on to their lead to the end, United will have the worst away record of any league winners since Liverpool in 1977 and so at least they will take comfort that tomorrow's game is on home soil.

United have already beaten Chelsea at Old Trafford this season, 2-1 in the Champions League a month ago, and a reversal of that scoreline will be hard to achieve for the visitors. Since the start of last season United have lost only four out of 55 at home, winning 46, and their record is just as formidable in the big games.

Against the Premier League's elite teams (the current top six) their record since the start of last season is won eight, drawn none and lost one, while in the Champions League they have won seven out of 11. That 75 per cent win rate in big home games makes their away form this season all the more perplexing, but that isn't important this weekend.

What matters more is Chelsea's away form and whether it is good enough to give them victory because anything less than three points would leave them at least three behind United with two to play. That gap would be incredibly difficult to close with United facing two of the bottom five (Blackburn away and Blackpool at home) in their final games .

Chelsea's away record is only marginally better than United's (26 points against 24 for United, who have played one more away game) and they have been no more adept at beating the top teams. Both Chelsea and United have won only once on the road against top-half teams and five of Chelsea's seven away wins have been against teams now in the bottom seven.

United's home record is the most convincing form line and, given their high win rate even against elite teams, they rate good value for the win that will virtually guarantee the title. With Chelsea obliged to attack, and even more so if United score (as they have in their past 24 home games), more than 2.5 goals looks a good bet too.

There's also plenty still at stake elsewhere.

With 40 points likely to be the furthest the survival race will stretch, the three relegated teams look set to come from the current bottom six and the crucial battles might well be a series of head-to-heads involving those teams (one on each of the remaining three weekends).

First up is bottom club West Ham at home to fifth-bottom Blackburn. The Hammers have an excellent home record against Blackburn, with last season's goalless draw ending a run of 10 straight wins over Rovers in league and cup, but the head-to-heads in bottom-six games might be the best form line.

Both have done reasonably well in that category (West Ham have 13 points and Blackburn 12, both from eight games) but West Ham look more solid as they have been beaten only once while Blackburn have lost two out of three on the road. More than 2.5 goals looks a good bet because 12 of Blackburn's 17 away games have topped that , as well as 11 of West Ham's 17 home games.

Also on the goals front, Bolton v Sunderland matches have a long history of low scores - 12 out of Bolton's 16 Premier League matches have had under 2.5 goals.

Everton look overpriced at home to Manchester City, especially if the visitors rest players ahead of the midweek game against Tottenham and next Saturday's FA Cup final.

Title race is on

Manchester United seemed to have the Premier League in the bag until Chelsea narrowed the point difference by: 12

Home, sweet home

If they manage to hold on, Manchester United will have the worst away record of an English league winner since: 1977

Shortlist: Aston Villa, Everton, West Brom, Manchester United, Nurnberg

Top five bets

1 Everton on handicap

Back in top-six form and will give Manchester City a battle

2 West Brom on handicap

Chelsea are the only team to have beaten Roy Hodgson's side

3 Manchester United home win

Phenomenal home win rate makes them the pick

4 Under 2.5 goals in Bolton v Sunderland

With little at stake, this could be a damp squib

5 Over 2.5 goals in West Ham v Blackburn

The defences could crack in this high-pressure contest

 

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