Chelsea has snapped out of its early season slump, just in time to face Premier League leader Arsenal with a chance of extending its four-year unbeaten run against the Gunners. The Blues picked up just 11 points from their first seven matches, but have closed to within three points of Arsenal going into Sunday's match at Emirates Stadium with an undefeated record stretching back to Sept. 23.
And with Arsenal having lost at Middlesbrough last weekend, Chelsea could be set to stretch its unbeaten streak against the Gunners to 11 matches. If Chelsea can do that, defending champion Manchester United could take the league lead if it beats fourth-place Liverpool the same day.
Much of the credit for Chelsea's recovery goes to coach Avram Grant, who earned a new four-year contract this week by lifting the players following the surprise departure of his predecessor, Jose Mourinho, in September.
"We went through a very difficult period," defender Alex said. "We were all very used to Mourinho and he was a great man who helped me a great deal.
"There was a lot of confusion and it did make a difference. We dropped points, particularly at home when he had some draws. But, gradually, we are creeping up and keeping in touch with the leaders."
The Gunners are winless against Chelsea since their unbeaten 2003-04 season yielded home and away victories in the Premier League. And even then, Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League.
Victory for Chelsea on Sunday would put it level with Arsenal, whose youthful team has drawn plaudits with its attacking verve. But Arsenal dropped two points at Newcastle before losing for the first time in the Premier League at Middlesbrough, giving the rest of the so-called "big four" a chance to trim its lead. Arsenal has had injury problems, with Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Aleksandr Hleb all missing several matches.
Netherlands striker Van Persie could start against Chelsea after proving his recovery from a knee problem by playing 64 minutes in the 2-1 midweek Champions League win over Steaua Bucharest, while manager Arsene Wenger could risk the others in his attempt for a first win over Chelsea in almost four seasons.
"Though I will certainly have to take a gamble on one or two, can I take a gamble on three or four?" Wenger said. "That would be a very risky, so I'll have to assess the situation in the next three or four days."
Defenders Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy could return to the Arsenal side after being rested against Steaua.
Chelsea, though, is still without injured striker Didier Drogba, while midfielder Michael Essien, who scored against Arsenal last season, is serving the last game of a three-match suspension. United heads to Liverpool knowing it has the chance to take first place for the first time this season, but Liverpool is on a high after joining the rest of the big four in the second round of the Champions League a feat achieved by scoring 16 goals in three European matches, including Tuesday's 4-0 win at Marseille. Key to Liverpool's success up front is Fernando Torres, who has scored 12 goals since joining from Atletico Madrid in the offseason. "He is already going some way to making the difference for Liverpool this season," United assistant manager Carlos Quieroz said. "He's a good finisher and he's a player who gives Liverpool something completely different.
"Certainly we will have to be careful of him because he is dangerous."
Whatever happens in London, United would go nine points clear of Liverpool if it wins at Anfield, making the match more important to the home side.
There are eight Premier League games on Saturday, including Tottenham at fifth-place Portsmouth.
Pompey can take a place, for a day at least, in the top four if it maintains its unbeaten home record. However, it has drawn five of its seven home matches four of them 0-0, giving Spurs hope of at least a point to aid its painstaking climb away from the relegation zone.
"I wouldn't say we don't deserve to be where we are," Tottenham assistant coach Gus Poyet said. "We do, because we don't have enough points. But this is a chance to show everyone we are a better team than the table shows."
Bolton is at Manchester City, Everton is at West Ham, Aston Villa is at Sunderland, Blackburn is at Wigan, Newcastle is at Fulham, Reading is at Birmingham, and Middlesbrough is at Derby in the weekend's other games.