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Premier League contenders face their moment of truth

Could this weekend have a significant – and potentially decisive – influence on who wins this season’s Premier League?

I have been saying for several weeks the outcome of the title race will most likely be decided on the away form of Manchester UnitedChelsea and Arsenal. After all, the top three – now separated by just two points – just keep on winning at home (where they have dropped a miserly 18 points between them thus far), while showing definite vulnerabilities on their travels, amassing 13 defeats combined.

This weekend, however, all three face challenging assignments. It is the last match-day on which at least one of the three does not have a relatively ‘easy’ (I use the word advisedly) game.

On paper, Arsenal – away to Birmingham – appear to have the toughest task. Alex McLeish’s side have only lost twice in the league at St Andrew’s, and are unbeaten at home since the end of September, a run which includes deserved draws against both Chelsea and United.

Furthermore, Arsenal will be without their first-choice centre back pairing of Thomas Vermaelen (suspended) and William Gallas (calf), with striker Nicklas Bendtner rated as questionable at the time of writing, having not trained since twisting his ankle against West Ham on Saturday. If he is ruled out, there is the possibility that Eduardo could start on the ground where his leg was broken two years ago.

Man U visit Bolton, who have won three and drawn one of their last four league games at the Reebok, without conceding a goal. This has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Alex Ferguson’s side, but with Bolton in decent form, set up the way new manager Owen Coyle wants them to play and just a few tantalising points away from safety, a surprise is not out of the question, particularly if Wayne Rooney’s knee – he was observed hobbling after Sunday’s victory over Liverpool – limits his participation. (Now I’ve said that, United will win 4-0 …)

Chelsea are the only one of the three to have the benefit of a home match, but it is against an Aston Villa team who are embroiled in a dog-fight for the fourth and final Champions League spot. (Just two points separate TottenhamMan City, Liverpool and Villa.) Up front, John Carew is on a hot streak with eight goals in his last seven games in all competitions. At the back, no defence has conceded fewer goals than Villa’s (25). And as a team they are incredibly difficult to beat: no other team has suffered fewer defeats (five), and only the top three themselves have more points away from home this season.

After Chelsea’s thumping 5-0 win over soon-to-be-relegated Portsmouth last night, the mathematics of the title race are now much simpler. The top three have all played 31 games, United lead Chelsea by a point (who lead Arsenal by a further point) and after this weekend each club will have three home and three away games remaining.

Beyond this weekend, Chelsea certainly have the most difficult away programme by some distance, which must trouble Carlo Ancelotti:

Man U: Blackburn, Man City, Sunderland

Chelsea: Man U, Tottenham, Liverpool

Arsenal: Tottenham, Wigan, Blackburn

Even allowing for the fact that Chelsea’s remaining home games are relatively straightforward, with every possibility they could fail to win all three remaining away fixtures they still look to have more difficult games overall than either of their rivals. With no disrespect to their other opponents, United will view Chelsea (H), City (A) and Spurs (H) as their toughest challenges, while Arsene Wenger’s most serious threats are limited to Spurs (A) and City (H).

It genuinely is too close to call. Arsenal trail and have the longest injury list, but have the easiest run-in. Chelsea don’t have the distraction of the Champions League, but face a tough sequence of games. United are a Rooney injury away from potential disaster, but have the experience of leading down the stretch and will probably feel if they can avoid defeat to Chelsea, the title is theirs to lose.

Who do I think will win? My heart says Arsenal, but my head says United – just. But I expect there to be a few dramatic twists and turns before we know for sure, and this weekend could turn out to be a pivotal one when we look back at the end of the season.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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