Manchester United's recent renaissance may have owed its origins to their autumn of discontent in 2005, when Roy Keane departed in typically explosive fashion and predictions of Sir Alex Ferguson's demise were frequent. It may have been provided with a catalyst when Cristiano Ronaldo metamorphosed into first Public Enemy No 1 and then a match- winner of unrivalled potency following Wayne Rooney's dismissal in the 2006 World Cup. Yet it arguably began amid more genteel behaviour. As Chelsea took to the Stamford Bridge turf in April 2006, United afforded them a guard of honour. More accustomed to receiving than giving applause, it was a second successive season that United had to clap the champions. An act of generosity by Ferguson, it was also a psychological ploy. This, he was telling them, is how it feels to be back in the pack. To lose.
Ruud van Nistelrooy's penultimate United game proved the end of one era and the beginning of another. The balance of power in England shifted northwards as United won three successive titles. End-of-season encounters brought indignities for Chelsea: first they had to reciprocate with a guard of honour to a glorified reserve team; then, inspiring a host of T-shirts in Manchester and preventing Chelsea from accepting a place at the top table in the continent, John Terry slipped in Moscow in the penalty shoot out in the Champions League final: also-rans in England had become champions of Europe. Now, however, the question is if another epoch is over: if United's supremacy ended when Ronaldo decamped to Real Madrid and if Chelsea have superseded them as the team to beat. Only two points separate them in the league and both have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, but there is an ominous look to Carlo Ancelotti's team.
Ferguson's side, in contrast, failed their most exacting examination, at Anfield, and have a defence where both personnel and performances have an uncertainty. Rio Ferdinand, the initial culprit, is absent today, while Jonny Evans and Wes Brown were no more convincing in Tuesday's 3-3 draw with CSKA Moscow. A goal conceded at a set-piece against the Russians boded badly. So the return of United's best header is welcome. Nemanja Vidic's ability could be invaluable against Didier Drogba. The Ivorian has the capacity to intimidate Brown and Evans, but Vidic is not cowed so easily. It is one of numerous potential clashes. Ashley Cole's duels with Ronaldo tended to be epics. Now there is a new contest and Antonio Valencia should provide the latest test of the left-back's acceleration.
There is the prospect of Terry and Rooney, the England teammates wrestling in and around the Chelsea penalty area, Frank Lampard versus Darren Fletcher in midfield, Michael Essien against Anderson in the battle of the imported powerhouses. Ancelotti believes the latter pair could be vital. "Manchester can suffer with pressure on their midfielders," he said, looking to copy Liverpool's blueprint from a fortnight ago. It is part of the tactical battle pitting ideas hewn in the Granite City against those polished amid Italian opulence. Since his Aberdeen days, Ferguson has often fielded wingers. They have had a greater importance this season, with a regular reversion to 4-4-2, while Ancelotti has opted for the diamond midfield he often favoured at AC Milan. His quartet in the centre of the pitch has everything except, perhaps, width. Ferguson is on an enduring search for an ideal combination. Overpowered at Anfield, it points to the selection of the two workhorses, Anderson and Fletcher, to avert a repeat.
Their Merseyside misery apart, it is worth remembering United have won three of their four biggest domestic games, against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. Their record in pivotal clashes is impressive, Chelsea's on home soil is impeccable. With five wins out of five, 15 goals scored and none conceded since the opening day of the season, it is their brand of perfection versus United's never-ending desire. This is a side who, without playing particularly well, have mustered a winner and two equalisers in injury time in the past two months alone, one with a capacity to respond to setbacks from the comparatively minor to witnessing Chelsea win back-to-back titles and one with a fierce dislike to applauding anyone else's triumphs. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org KO 8pm, Showsports 1 & 2
You can have all the money in the world but nothing is more important to a team's success than good hard work, according to Fulham manager Roy Hodgson. Hodgson takes his side to Wigan today looking for his fifth win of the season.A poor start to the campaign led to relegation fears at Craven Cottage but a four-match unbeaten run means Hodgson's team could end the weekend in the top half of the table. "There's no doubt that the Premier League is getting tougher and tougher to survive in," Hodgson said. "More and more money is being spent by the teams and much more investment is being made than perhaps was done in the past. But it's nice to think that hard work and a good bunch of players who work hard for each other and the team are capable of surviving in the League." Wigan v Fulham KO 7pm, Showsports Extra
The Hull midfielder Seyi Olofinjana has called on the whole team to take responsibility for turning their season around. The club's poor form this term seen scrutiny fall on the manager Phil Brown, and new chairman Adam Pearson has offered him no public job assurances beyond today's game against Stoke. But Olofinjana - bought by Brown from Stoke last summer - said the players are fighting for their manager. "Phil Brown has got his own faults, he has got his improvements to make, but as players we all have," said the Nigerian. "We are paid heavily to do a job. Getting results is not only down to the manager, it is down to us as well." Hull have won just twice this season - and only three times in 33 league games -ahead of the visit of Olofinjana's former club. Hull City v Stoke City KO 5.30pm, Showsports 2
The Everton defender Phil Jagielka has undergone a second knee operation and may not play again until after Christmas. Jagielka, 27, has been sidelined since damaging knee ligaments in April but had been hoping to return before the end of November, but now the centre-back's comeback will be delayed. Everton manager David Moyes said: "Jagielka had an operation on a tear in his meniscus, which is the cartilage in his knee. We think [it has set him back] four to six weeks. He was down initially but he's on the road to recovery now." Everton travel to West Ham today whose midfielder Mark Noble, in line to make his 100th appearance for the club, hopes they can build on the 2-1 midweek win over Aston Villa. He said: "It was a really tough game, but now the confidence is up." West Ham v Everton KO 7pm, Showsports 4.