London:The season may only be a month old but Manchester United are already facing a crisis point in the defence of their English Premier League title.
Defeat at Chelsea on Sunday would leave Sir Alex Ferguson's squad trailing their London rivals by nine points and, on the evidence presented so far, that is a deficit that, even with a game in hand, will take some closing.
Liverpool, provided they put top flight newcomers Stoke City to the sword at Anfield on Saturday, would also find themselves nine points clear of the champions in the event of a Chelsea victory.
Yet Ferguson insists he is relaxed about a sluggish start to a campaign in which the Champions League holders have not won since the opening weekend.
United's boss insists the post-summer torpor that has afflicted his side will soon give way to the verve that characterised last season's march to a league and Champions League double.
"We have been a bit short in terms of real sharpness and clinical finishing but I think the games will bring that on," Ferguson said. "By October I think you will see the real Manchester United."
Ferguson was unusually critical of his own players, particularly the back four, following last weekend's defeat at Liverpool, and he is expecting a reaction against Chelsea.
"It is always a big game when the top sides meet," he said. "That is why we were so disappointed with last Saturday, particularly the way we gave goals away. But we will go down to Chelsea very positive, no doubt about that."
Ferguson is hoping to have 30-million-pound signing Dimitar Berbatov fit and faces a couple of tough selection decisions for a trip to face a Chelsea side that have looked intimidatingly impressive in their first outings under Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Centreback Nemanja Vidic is suspended so Ferguson must decide whether to gamble on youngster Jonny Evans or opt for the more experienced Wes Brown as a partner to Rio Ferdinand in a defence that could be facing Didier Drogba, who is ready for his first start of the seaosn.
The Scot also faces a dilemma over whether to start Cristiano Ronaldo, who only made his return from ankle surgery in the final half hour of United's midweek goalless draw with Villarreal in the Champions League.
Ronaldo did enough in that time to suggest he would be enhance United's chances of claiming all three points at Stamford Bridge but Ferguson was keeping his cards close to his chest, insisting it would be a "big ask" to expect the Portugal winger to start such an important match barely two months after undergoing ankle surgery.
Chelsea's form so far this season has been underpinned by some superb displays from Frank Lampard, and the England midfielder insists the Blues are good enough to handle United with or without Ronaldo.
"I don't know what the situation is with him and I'm not too concerned really," Lampard said. "He's probably the best player in the world, having done what he did last season, you can't take that away from him. If they put him back for our game then we'll have to deal with that.
"But we are good enough to deal with Manchester United at their strongest, we shouldn't want them weakened. If they are strong they are strong and we still want to beat them."
Arsenal kick off the weekend a point adrift of Chelsea and Liverpool and Arsene Wenger's men will be confident of staying in touch with the leaders by beating Bolton at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday evening.
Fourth-placed Aston Villa face a derby clash at West Brom on Sunday while Tottenham, with just one point from four matches, desperately need to take all three points from Wigan, visitors to White Hart Lane later that day, to relieve the pressure on manager Juande Ramos.
Saturday: Blackburn v Fulham, Bolton v Arsenal, Liverpool v Stoke, Sunderland v Middlesbrough, West Ham v Newcastle
Sunday: Chelsea v Manchester Utd, Hull City v Everton, Manchester City v Portsmouth, Tottenham v Wigan, West Brom v Aston Villa.