Arsenal take on Tottenham in the latest instalment of their bitter north London rivalry on Saturday in a Premier League showdown neither side can afford to lose.
After five years without a trophy, Arsenal are daring to dream of a sustained title challenge as Chelsea and Manchester United struggle to find the consistency which has made the league a two-horse race in recent seasons. A victory over Spurs in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off will see Arsene Wenger's side go one point clear of Chelsea, albeit possibly for only a few hours, before the champions face a tricky away trip to Birmingham.
"Is it our title year? It is definitely a case of being optimistic for the future and, maybe, it could be our turn," said Arsenal's mercurial playmaker Samir Nasri, superb for France in Les Bleus' midweek victory over England. "Having done so well, now we must look ahead to what will be a very difficult game (against Tottenham)," he added. "We will have to fight hard to get the result but I feel our reputation is restored and we can do well."
Arsenal head into the match on the back of two encouraging away wins at Wolves and Everton. However the defensive frailties which have haunted Wenger's team this season have mostly occurred at home. The Emirates has been anything but a fortress so far, with West Bromwich Albion and, most recently, Newcastle both scoring upset away wins. Another home defeat will reawaken the doubts over Arsenal's ability to stay the course.
For Spurs, however, who are three places and three points outside the UEFA Champions League reckoning, only a victory will do if they are not to risk falling further behind in the race for a top four spot. Spurs will look to marauding left-sided midfielder Gareth Bale to provide the cutting edge against Arsenal.
Bale, who has eight goals to his name so far, including a memorable Champions League hat-trick against Inter Milan at the San Siro, was keen to prevent Arsenal from spending even a few hours as Premier League leaders. "We need to win every game we play at the moment," Bale said. "We're good enough to beat anybody and we've shown that in the past. It will be a massive test obviously, away at the Emirates, but we'll be ready for it."
Chelsea seek to avoid blues
Chelsea meanwhile will take an injury depleted squad to St Andrews as they attempt to bounce back from the shock of last Sunday's 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland at Stamford Bridge. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has just Branislav Ivanovic and Paulo Ferreira available to play in central defence, with Alex joining John Terry on the sidelines earlier this week.
Add to that the gaping hole left by the long-term injury absence of Frank Lampard and the suspended Michael Essien, and Saturday may be Birmingham's best chance in decades of ending a 30-year winless streak against Chelsea. "I don't think we will pip Chelsea for the league but can we win a home game against Chelsea? That's achievable," Birmingham manager Alex McLeish said. "I'm not saying we will, I am saying we can and it is achievable. We have to believe we can do it."
In other matches this weekend, Manchester United will be expected to bag a comfortable three points against Wigan at Old Trafford after beating the Latics 5-0 home and away last season. Even so, United midfielder Darren Fletcher has urged his team-mates to beware taking any team lightly, mindful that Sir Alex Ferguson's side have looked anything but convincing in recent weeks where they scrambled a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa and snatched a last-gasp win over Wolves. "There's still a long way to go and it's important we start winning games and putting a run together," Fletcher said.
Liverpool will be without injured skipper Steven Gerrard as they attempt to relaunch their stalled revival against West Ham at Anfield. Gerrard injured a hamstring while on international duty for England on Wednesday, to the annoyance of his employers.
On Sunday, former Manchester City manager Mark Hughes could pile the pressure on his successor Roberto Mancini if his Fulham side defeat his former club at Craven Cottage. Defeat to Fulham would see renewed calls for Mancini to be replaced, barely one year after Hughes was controversially jettisoned from Eastlands by the club's success-hungry paymasters.