Stern examination as resurgent Blues face City acid test
Chelsea vs Manchester City on Monday night is the standout fixture on the English Premier League programme.
But there are significant tests everywhere - not only Chelsea's resurgence and City's leadership, but also Martin O'Neill's return to Sunderland management, Newcastle's coping without their best defenders and Tottenham's blistering form as they visit Stoke.
Chelsea have hit back at the critics with a pair of 3-0 victories against testing opposition, but they face the ultimate examination of their trophy-winning capabilities against City.
The wins against Newcastle, sixth in the Premier League, and Spain's third-best team, Valencia, have restored some credibility to the Andre Villas-Boas project.
The clean sheets were important, as Chelsea had managed only five shutouts in 19 previous games in the Premier League and Champions League, and Tuesday's home win over Valencia put the Stamford Bridge crowd back on their side.
Another step up in gear may be necessary against City. Chelsea have yet to win this season when they have conceded against opponents from the Champions League or the Premier League big six, losing five out of seven in those circumstances. That is a weakness that City should be able to exploit.
The short-lived European campaign has put a damper on City's season, but domestically they have been virtually unstoppable. Their only dropped points have been on the road - which gives Chelsea hope - but a crucial factor is they have scored in every game.
One measure of the two teams is their performance against teams from the Champions League or the Premier League big six, and they are not that far apart. City have won five and lost two out of nine (both defeats were away in Europe) while Chelsea have won three and lost four out of nine.
Those figures and most of this season's form suggest Chelsea should not be clear favourites on Monday, despite home advantage, and the pick is City on the handicap.
Newcastle's visit to Norwich will be telling. On paper, Newcastle look a good bet, having won seven and drawn two of their nine games against teams outside the big six, but tonight they must cope without the central defensive rock of Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini. Both were injured in last week's defeat by Chelsea, meaning Newcastle will have to change their starting back four for the first time this season.
One of the replacements will be James Perch, whose lack of physical presence is likely to be exploited by Norwich. Seven of Norwich's 20 league goals have come from headers, with several more resulting from crosses, and Perch will be put to the test by strikers Steve Morison and Grant Holt.
It will be a sign that Newcastle's form is likely to falter if they prove unable to cope with the handicap of losing their best defenders and, while they rate highly as a handicap bet, the doubt is enough to give them a miss.
Martin O'Neill goes straight into a crucial relegation clash with Sunderland, who host Blackburn with the idea that a win could leave the bottom three four points adrift (assuming Bolton and Wigan both fail to win). If Sunderland lose, they will be in the relegation zone and two points from safety.
Defensive organisation is one of O'Neill's strengths and that is something for him to build on, as their form was not too bad before the recent defeats by Wolves and Wigan. The biggest problem is Sunderland's lively but low-scoring attack, which has outpaced the opposition only twice this season.
Blackburn have had the same problem, but they have lost only one of their last six matches against teams outside the top six and are clearly playing for under-fire manager Steve Kean. This is a tough game to call, but Blackburn are the handicap pick at odds that are too heavily skewed towards Sunderland.
Stoke will be a big test for Tottenham, who have 74 points in the past 38 games - the equivalent of a full season. With that total, they would have finished second behind champions Manchester United last season. Only the two Manchester clubs have performed better than Tottenham in the past 12 months and the gap is narrowing on United. Harry Redknapp's side must be taken seriously.
Stoke remain formidable. Their results this season have been much better when they haven't been coming off a midweek game - three wins and only one defeat from five games in those instances.
Tottenham have some compelling stats: winning all nine games against teams outside the top six, winning both league games against Stoke last season and being 2-1 winners at the Britannia stadium on their last two league visits.
The better teams have found a way to combat Stoke since the shock factor of their first season in the Premier League, but this season United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all failed to win at the Britannia. A draw would be a good result for the Spurs, who aren't an attractive bet at the odds.
Aston Villa, Hull, Leicester, West Ham, Villarreal, Malaga, Lazio, Siena, Palermo, Werder Bremen
TOP 5 BETS
1 Aston Villa on handicap
Still plenty of doubt about hosts Bolton
2 Hull on handicap
Strong on the road and hosts Coventry are weak
3 Leicester home win
Have won both home games under Nigel Pearson
4 West Ham on handicap
Superb away form is fuelling promotion drive
5 Palermo home win
Standout bet on an appealing weekend in Italy