The Premier League title race is shaping up to climax in quite remarkable style. That is, unless Chelsea and Manchester City stuff things up this weekend. Please don't...
Liverpool's most important league match in 25 years and a season-defining game for Arsenal. Chuck in a relegation battle and it's a bloody Big Weekend...
The defeat at Old Trafford was not psychologically destroying, but Arsenal now need a response following their first defeat since the opening day. The international break perhaps came at a perfect time for Arsene Wenger, allowing him the take stock of just how far his side have come in a short space of time.
Given the current inconsistencies of the sides around them, losing to United was not terminal, nor even critical, to Arsenal's title bid, but getting stuck in a rut of underperformance would. To tweak the oft-used cliché, slipping up is not a problem, but the response to such setbacks and learning from those games will be what defines the validity of Arsenal's bid to remain top of the pile.
Southampton's trip to the Emirates is potentially the most intriguing of the weekend, and the key looks likely to be the home side's ability to create meaningful chances. Arsenal have had just four shots on target in their last two matches (admittedly against tough opposition), but Southampton have the third meanest defence in Europe's top five leagues.
Throw in Olivier Giroud's comparative drought of late (one goal in seven PL games, against Palace) and Mesut Ozil's slight dip in form and the end result seems less than evident. As Adam Lallana opined on Thursday: "It's a massive game. It's top versus third so why can't we go there and get a result? We've done it at Old Trafford and at Anfield already this season."
Why not indeed.
Three weeks ago all looked rather rosy in Chelseaworld (just imagine such a place for a moment). They sat two points behind Arsenal at the top of the table having beaten Manchester City in the league and Arsenal in the Capital One Cup, six consecutive victories providing Jose Mourinho with solace after September defeats. Now, two matches and one (stolen) point later, pressure has heightened again.
Such is the tightness of the current Premier League that Chelsea are still just four points from top in fourth place, but there will be concern at Stamford Bridge that Mourinho lacks the untouchable, unflappable aura that marked his first tenure at the club. During Jose's first season at Chelsea in 2004/5 it took until February 6 to match their current total of 12 dropped points.
As I said here, now is the time for the pre-season favourites to all aim for some much-needed consistency. For Chelsea that must start at Upton Park on Saturday evening.
Manchester United's Central Midfield
With Phil Jones ruled out for at least a couple of weeks and Michael Carrick still a few weeks away from a return to full fitness, David Moyes has something of a midfield dilemma when taking his side to Wales this Sunday.
Marouane Fellaini is also struggling for fitness with a wrist injury that will require surgery, increasing the probability of a central pair of Ryan Giggs and Anderson, something that very few United fans would welcome. Even if the Belgian is passed fit, his struggles to impress thus far will only be further tested by a combative Cardiff midfield.
After an impressive recent run (unbeaten in nine games, won five of last six), Sunday will act as another marker of just how much United and Moyes have progressed of late.
After 11 games, Roberto Martinez now has exactly the same record as David Moyes enjoyed at this stage last season - five victories and 20 points gained. Given the upheaval associated with the implementation of a new style of play and the summer departure of Marouane Fellaini (alongside much of the coaching staff) to Manchester United, the Spaniard deserves plenty of plaudits for his initial work.
Now comes the chance to truly step out from the shadows of his predecessor, as David Moyes' Merseyside derby record was less than impressive. Since the start of 2007, Everton have won just one of the 13 league matches against their closest rivals.
One suspects that Romelu Lukaku will be crucial to Everton's success. Capable of acting as the target man but also comfortable bringing the likes of Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar into play, the Belgian's performances since the 2-0 win at Aston Villa in October have actually been below par, coinciding with two matches in which his side have also failed to score.
A final quick word of warning for Everton - keep your discipline. In Everton's last seven home defeats to Liverpool stretching back to April 2003, they have had eight players sent off, and their opponents have had none. It is a difficult enough fixture without unnecessarily hampering themselves.
Unexpected victories over Newcastle and Manchester City in their last three games have given Sunderland a fair chance at survival. Despite what Sarah Winterburn wrote a month ago, Gus Poyet has instigated a change at the Stadium of Light, and Sunderland are now ridiculously just seven points off the top half. It's almost like the players are breathing a sigh of relief following the departure of Paolo Di Canio.
That said, their away form desperately needs addressing. Since the beginning of February, Sunderland have lost ten of their 12 games on the road, and defeats at Crystal Palace, West Brom, Swansea and Hull don't particularly inspire hope of an immediate change of fortunes.
Five of Sunderland's next six away games must be seen as winnable, starting at Stoke on Saturday (they then travel to Villa, West Ham, Cardiff and Fulham before mid-January). Win at the Britannia and they could be level on points with three of those sides.
It's now no wins and three points in seven league games for Stoke, and Mark Hughes side now sit level on points with the relegation zone. The opening day chants of "We're Stoke City, we play on the floor!" may still just about ring true, but given the choice of Premier League pragmatism or Football League flair, I know which I would prefer. There is more than one way to skin a footballing cat, and at the moment Stoke are simply tickling its whiskers with the knife.
A draw at the Liberty Stadium last time out was at least a point gained rather than two dropped, but Hughes admitted that they got a break thanks to Charlie Adam's late penalty, and it was the only thing keeping Stoke out of the bottom three going into the international break.
"We want to get the ball down and play, get good angles to our passing and get people into good areas to create chances. We want to be in a position to dictate to the opposition, certainly at home. This has been a difficult place to come and we want to make it more difficult."
Despite Hughes' pre-season promise, no side has scored fewer home goals. No side has fewer home wins. They have now scored one goal in their last four home games and only West Brom and Cardiff have created fewer chances.
Hughes is currently completely failing to live up to his self-created expectations and remit. Things have to change, and change quickly.
Eight goals in six games since his return from suspension, Suarez is currently on a run of form that would see him end the league season on 44 goals, which isn't too shabby given that the Uruguayan's campaign only started on September 29. The worry for Everton ahead of the derby is that Suarez rather enjoys the fixture, with a return of three goals and three assists in just four games.
Brendan Rodgers admitted this week that managing Suarez had been challenging, but you do sort of wonder how much 'managing' has actually gone on. 'Do a racism, and we'll stand by you. Do a biting, and we'll stand by you. Whore yourself out to Real Madrid, and we'll try and ignore you. Score loads of goals, and we'll all be bloody happy.'
Realistically Rodgers is doing nothing more than enjoying an extended spell of Luis Jekyll and crossing his fingers that Luis Hyde doesn't return. He can't really be blamed for such a strategy - what else can he realistically be expected to do - and whilst Suarez continues to behave (and score shedloads of goals) Liverpool's manager will be more than happy to base his formation and approach around one of the world's top strikers.
It's now one goal from open play in 884 Premier League minutes, and as Spurs' goal dearth continues (five goals in seven games), so does Soldado's. That a side with Tottenham's quality have scored more than one goal in just two of their 11 games so far indicates a substantial issue at hand.
The Spaniard has survived most of the criticism from Spurs fans so far, preferring (and perhaps rightly so) to focus on his lack of service. Whilst that may well be true, and AVB must be tearing out his slightly wavy, gingery hair at the continuous insistence of cer-Townsend-tain midfielders to shoot from 30 yards out, there is no doubt that Soldado could do with being a little more conspicuous in attack.
Villas-Boas could rather do with a seemingly inviting home fixture in his attempt to click things back into gear; Spurs travel to Manchester City.
Villas-Boas could rather do with having all of his creative midfielders available in a bid to improve the supply to his principal attacking threat; Christian Eriksen has been ruled out for at least a month.
'Good luck' is about all you can say to any side travelling to the Etihad right now.
"It is a six-pointer already... If they beat us on Saturday, he [Chris Hughton] is in a much better position than I am and the pressure then comes on me."
This column raised its eyebrows at Sam Allardyce's underlining of the importance of his side's fixture against Norwich, because it highlighted that after spending £40million on players since last summer, the only place the manager had taken West Ham was into a relegation battle.
Having therefore lost 3-1 in said match, the pressure must surely be growing on the self-appointed tactical mastermind of the Premier League? This was a Norwich side that had conceded 18 times in five matches, and had not scored more than one goal in a league match since the opening day. More worryingly for Allardyce is the fact that his side have taken just seven points since the opening day - that's the same as Sunderland, and that they have scored from just two of their last 56 shots in the league.
A game against Chelsea always has an added bite but, for Allardyce, it is another difficult assignment to be attempted without a frontline striker. By the time the game kicks off, West Ham could well be in the bottom three.
Whilst there is no doubt that Andre Marriner simply considered that Steven Reid had impeded Ramires in the final minute at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, there is also a similar amount of uncertainty that his judgment was incorrect. The crime of the flagrant Marriner.
Saved the ultimate indignation of being dropped from the Premier League schedule, Marriner paid a heavy price for his misdemeanour - no-one likes their boss (in this case Mike Riley) personally apologising for a mistake that you have made.
Fulham v Swansea this weekend, Marriner will be hoping to stay very much on the periphery of the match.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter