Premiership: Distant Arsenal out to stem blue tide
LONDON, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Manchester United could be nine points clear at the top of the Premier League by the time champions Chelsea host Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
United should continue more than 30 years of Old Trafford domination against Manchester City in Saturday's lunchtime derby, leaving the stage clear for the two London clubs to renew their fractious rivalry.
Relations between the clubs have grown frosty since Chelsea's emergence from Arsenal's shadow under Jose Mourinho.
The departure of left back Ashley Cole from Arsenal to Chelsea on transfer deadline day ended a bitter saga stretching back to the 'tapping up' affair of January 2005.
His subsequent comments that Arsenal 'betrayed' him have turned him from hero to hate figure among Arsenal fans, although William Gallas's move in the opposite direction softened the blow slightly.
Cole will no doubt be given a 'warm' welcome from his old team mates when he faces them for the first time. Gallas hopes to return from a thigh injury.
The touchline body language could also make interesting viewing as Mourinho and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger have regularly traded insults.
Mourinho once accused the Frenchman of behaving like 'a voyeur' and was then labelled 'stupid' in reply. Even a post-match handshake has been beyond them at times.
Although peace, if not harmony, appears to have broken out between the pair, Sunday's clash has the potential to bring the emotions back to the boil.
What will hurt Wenger most is that his third-placed side are merely observers to a title race that has long since passed them by. They are 10 points behind second-placed Chelsea.
However, the wily Wenger can still boast of being the last manager to leave Stamford Bridge with three league points.
That 2-1 win, in February 2004, maintained Arsenal's long unbeaten league run against them stretching back to 1995. However, it proved to be the turning point.
In the seven meetings since, Arsenal have not managed a win and Chelsea did the double on the north Londoners last season on the way to a second successive title.
Arsenal's main problem this season has been their fragile away form, the recent back-to-back defeats by Bolton Wanderers and Fulham a case in point and their chances of landing a blow on Chelsea will be further hampered by the absence of striker Thierry Henry.
The France international has ruled himself out with a neck injury, leaving Emmanuel Adebayor to lead the line alongside Robin van Persie.
Wenger has also hinted that teenage prodigy Theo Walcott will get to play more than just a cameo role. 'He will play in this period and that is good for him,' Wenger said in the build-up to Wednesday's Champions League clash with Porto, which ended in a 0-0 draw.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have no such problems with Andriy Shevchenko, scorer in midweek against Levski Sofia, finally beginning to flourish alongside the in-form Didier Drogba.
Chelsea will be hoping that Manchester City can spring a surprise on Saturday, although City have not won in the league at Old Trafford for more than 30 years.
City are one of 10 clubs within five points of third-placed Arsenal and several of them will be eyeing a place in Europe next season.
Portsmouth host Everton, Liverpool take on Fulham while surprise package Reading travel to bottom club Watford.