Three-way fight enriched by Chelsea

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The Independent Football

It does not suit any of the participants to increase the pressure on themselves by admitting it, but this season's Premiership title is likely to be decided by the results of just six matches between the top three clubs.

Clearly, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United will drop occasional - very occasional - points along the way to inferior opposition, but the extraordinary fact is that with more than a third of the programme completed, the big three have lost only three games between them out of 39, one of which was Chelsea's narrow defeat at Highbury last month. Other than that, only Southampton and Fulham have broken the cartel, by beating United, who have made their best start to a Premiership season yet still stand no higher than third.

Given the state of Liverpool and Newcastle (both defeated by all the top three already), a League in which every team can supposedly beat every other is heading the way of the Dutch Eredivisie in which the country's leading clubs - PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord - last season finished 28 points clear of the field.

The upside, of course, is that matches between the real contenders, such as this afternoon's at Stamford Bridge, take on an importance that even BSkyB does not need to hype. The only problem for a channel that talks up Blackburn against Everton on a miserable Monday night is whether Roget's Thesaurus can do justice to Chelsea against Manchester United. The TV boys would not have found the home side's otherwise loquacious Icelandic striker Eidur Gudjohnsen willing to play ball with them in building up today's game between the second and third placed clubs. Skilled as he is in football-speak after five seasons in England (beginning with Bolton Wanderers), the phrase "massive game" did not cross his lips once in a long conversation with representatives of Her Majesty's press corps.

"Nothing will be won or lost on Sunday, that's for sure," was the theme. "Every match is important, every three points. Maybe psychologically it will give you a little bit of an advantage but you just have to make sure you don't let the other two [teams] slip away. There's only a third of the season gone, there's a lot of games coming up. It's an important game but if we were to lose, we haven't lost the championship, that's for sure."

The immediate effect would, however, be to fall two points behind them and quite probably four behind Arsenal, who are favourites to extend their record start to a Premiership campaign by beating Fulham earlier in the afternoon at Highbury. That was the venue for the only decisive result between the top three so far this season, when Arsène Wenger's side won a thrilling contest with a goal unworthy of it, bundled in off Thierry Henry's knee as Carlo Cudicini perpetrated a dreadful fumble.

Chelsea's manager, Claudio Ranieri, was forced to admit afterwards that his newly enriched squad had not at that time evolved into a team in the real sense of the word, yet since then he has made significantly fewer changes, and reaped the benefit of settling on a pattern: John Terry and William Gallas have had a first line of defence in front of them in the excellent Claude Makelele; Damien Duff has been at the apex of a diamond midfield, with Frank Lampard and, latterly, Joe Cole to either side; and Adrian Mutu has been partnered in attack by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (in the Premiership) or Hernan Crespo (in Europe).

The upshot is seven wins and a draw since Highbury, five successive clean sheets and a place in the knockout stage of the Champions' League. No sulking or grumbling either from those left hoping for a substitutes' appearance, according to one of their number, Gudjohnsen: "I've never had a problem with it, it keeps you on your toes. I haven't seen or heard many players express disappoint-ment; obviously, you can't say you're happy if you don't play, but everyone's aiming to win trophies and if everyone can play their part and we can all get our hands on a trophy at the end of the season, it makes it worthwhile.

"When I signed, there was Gianfranco Zola, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Tore Andre Flo - I still signed, and I'm still here. Name me one big club that hasn't got four good strikers. It's up to me to show I'm worthy of a place. For me it doesn't matter who we bring in, I just have to do what I do best."

Another encouraging aspect for Chelsea, as he points out, is the newly discovered ability to grind out narrow victories at venues such as Southampton and Middlesbrough, where points have been dropped in the past: "Christmas time last season we were still right up there challenging Arsenal, then we slipped up towards the end. Now I believe we can keep it going.

"The expectations have always been there but maybe this cash injection and all the new players has made the expectation a little higher. It's understandable. But we're not thinking about winning things at the moment, we'll just see how far we go."

This afternoon will be a pointer at least; more accurately, a six-pointer.

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