By Toby Davis
LONDON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Riding the wave of a five-match winning streak, Chelsea face Manchester United on Sunday with a chance to reinforce their own Premier League credentials and read the last rites to their opponents' title defence.
Jose Mourinho's battles with Manchester United in his first stint as manager were frequently billed as decisive skirmishes in the title race, but this encounter will lack that extra edge.
Chelsea are in the slipstream of leaders Arsenal, who host Fulham on Saturday, and second-placed Manchester City, who entertain Cardiff City, but United are way off the pace.
Eleven points separate David Moyes's side from the summit and defeat would effectively end any lingering hopes they have that a strong run-in could propel them into contention.
Perhaps more pressing, however, is the fact that a reverse could leave United eight points adrift of fourth place and Champions League qualification if Liverpool beat Aston Villa on Saturday.
In the run-up to the weekend's standout fixture, the difference between the two protagonists has also been felt in the transfer market.
Chelsea flexed their muscles by spending 21 million pounds ($34.34 million)on Benfica midfielder Nemanja Matic while United continue to keep their powder dry with fans crying out for reinforcements, especially in midfield where they have lacked creativity.
With striker Robin van Persie still out injured and Wayne Rooney's involvement doubtful after returning from a warm-weather break planned to restore his fitness, United's approach is likely to be focused on containment.
Chelsea were cautious in the teams' clash at Old Trafford in August, which finished in a goalless draw, but with Arsenal and Manchester City both at home this weekend, dropped points could see them hand the initiative to their rivals.
Arsenal will look to make the most of any Chelsea slip-up and their manager Arsene Wenger said his side have the stomach for a title fight as they approach a period when they have frequently been found wanting.
They capitulated in all competitions between December and February last season, but the current team are showing signs that they are made of sterner stuff and confidence is permeating through the squad.
"We just look at ourselves and think we are good enough to respond to any challenge they give us," defender Per Mertesacker said on the back of a resilient display in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Monday.
Fulham are involved in a relegation battle but showed they are not without quality in a confident 3-0 win over Norwich City in the FA Cup on Tuesday.
Manchester City will not need reminding about the danger of underestimating Cardiff after they lost 3-2 in Wales this season.
Cardiff have since replaced manager Malky Mackay with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and although they are third from bottom they held Arsenal for 88 minutes at the Emirates Stadium on New Years' Day before losing 2-0.
City have won their last six league games, averaging three goals a match and beating Blackburn 5-0 in an FA Cup replay on Wednesday, and their form has prompted manager Manuel Pellegrini to target a quadruple trophy haul.
"It's difficult (to win all four) but we'll try," he said.
"That's why nobody has done it before. But I think we must have the mentality to try to do it."
Liverpool can maintain their faint title hopes if they can make it three successive Premier League wins at home to Aston Villa.
They welcomed back striker Daniel Sturridge against Stoke City last weekend and reunited him with the prolific Luis Suarez, who notched his 21st and 22nd goals of the season in a 5-3 win.
Tottenham Hotspur, in sixth, visit Swansea City on Sunday and Everton, who are fifth, have to wait until Monday to face West Bromwich Albion. ($1 = 0.6116 British pounds) (Editing by Ed Osmond)
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- Premier League