Chelsea and ailing Gunners move into the EPL spotlight
The match-of-the-weekend focus switches from Manchester to London tonight as Chelsea host Arsenal in the latest clash between teams from the Premier League's big six, although it's not quite set up in the way most people would have expected at the start of the season.
The last time the two clubs met at Stamford Bridge, just over 12 months ago, Chelsea were top and Arsenal were third, but this season the Gunners have struggled to keep pace with the other elite teams. Currently they lie in seventh place, 12 points behind leaders Manchester City, and that is mainly because their early season form against the other members of the big six has been poor.
Arsenal have lost all three big-six showdowns so far - 8-2 at Manchester United, 2-1 at Tottenham and 2-0 at home to Liverpool - and they will have to be much more competitive in those big games if they are to challenge for a top-four place.
Contrary to the gloom that surrounds them, it is not all bad for Arsenal because there is not too much wrong with the rest of their form. They have 13 points out of a possible 18 against the non-elite teams of the Premier League, as well as an unbeaten start to their Champions League campaign that has put them top of their group.
Arsenal beat Chelsea in the most recent Premier League meeting, 3-1 at the Emirates on December 27 last year, but that day they had Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere in the team. Without that trio, there is a clear downgrade in quality in the Arsenal midfield and that goes a long way towards explaining the reverses they have suffered against other big-six teams.
Most of the signs suggest a turnaround in Arsenal's fortunes is unlikely tonight. Chelsea have won all four home games, by an aggregate of 12 goals to four, while Arsenal have taken only one point out of a possible 12 on the road and have the joint-worst away goals-against in the Premier League. Most of the 14 goals-against came in the thrashing by Manchester United, but they conceded four more at bottom club Blackburn, which cannot be excused easily.
Chelsea were solid rather than spectacular as they tried to hang on to the Manchester clubs in the early weeks of the season but then appeared to be improving until they were thrown off track by last week's tempestuous west London derby defeat by QPR.
With Chelsea two men short for most of that game, the result is best written off and instead the form line to follow is the previous three wins in the Premier League and Champions League by an aggregate of 13 goals to two.
At home in those competitions Chelsea have won all six matches this season, scoring at least two goals each time, and Juan Mata is emerging as a key player.
With his ability to drift into space and find defence-splitting passes, the Spaniard has added a new dimension to Chelsea's play. He has scored one goal and had three assists in six games, and he may be the player who gets Fernando Torres scoring again on a regular basis.
One source of comfort for Arsenal tonight is the absence of Didier Drogba following his sending-off at QPR, as he had scored in eight of his 14 appearances against Arsenal and finished on the losing side only once.
When Drogba hasn't been there to terrorise them, Arsenal have won two and drawn one out of three against Chelsea. In another match where Drogba didn't start, Arsenal were level at half-time but were beaten 1-0 by a Drogba goal after he came on for the second half.
If this was the Arsenal side of last season, the Drogba stats would give them a real chance of success but the current players look a little short of the elite standards set by Arsene Wenger's teams over the years.
At the same time, Chelsea appear to be developing in a new direction that may make them less reliant on the bludgeoning Drogba and more influenced by the Mata rapier.
Chelsea's better overall form, along with the respective home and away records, points to another home win and it would be no surprise if the scoring went over 2.5 goals, as it has in five of Chelsea's six home games this season in the Premier League and Champions League.
Manchester City, having won 5-2 at Wolves in the midweek Carling Cup tie, should have no problem at home against the same opponents. They are likely to win by a similarly comfortable margin, having won three of their four home games this season by three goals or more. Over 2.5 goals looks a good bet again.
Swansea are one of the better-value home bets against Bolton. The Premier League newcomers failed to score in their first three games but have won both home matches since breaking their duck, while Bolton have lost 10 of their 13 away games this year.
Stoke v Newcastle on Monday brings together the teams with the lowest goals-per game-average this season - exactly two goals per game for each team.
Stoke also lead the Premier League for games with under 2.5 goals (seven out of nine) and Newcastle are also biased towards low scores (five out of nine under 2.5 goals). A low-scoring draw could be the outcome.
Shortlist: Swansea, Norwich, Crystal Palace, Peterborough, Bilbao, Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen, Parma, Atalanta
TOP 5 BETS
1. Swansea home win
The only Premier League team yet to concede at home
2. Bilbao on handicap
Yet to lose to a team below them in the table
3. Wolfsburg home win
Only dropped points at home were against Bayern
4. Werder Bremen on handicap
One defeat in eight against teams below them
5. Atalanta on handicap
Ten points out of 12 against bottom-half teamsFixturesshortlist