Ed Chamberlin: Title talk
Sky Sports presenter Ed Chamberlin looks at the Premier League and weekend's racing in his latest column.
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Another contrasting week in Manchester. It was strange to be at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and see Chelsea dismiss United with relative ease.
No one seemed in the least bit surprised. Yet this is Manchester United we are talking about. Their title defence is effectively over with Sky Bet quoting them at 80/1 to retain the trophy.
It's only January, yet after Wednesday night's dramatic finish and demoralising Capital One Cup exit to Sunderland, United only have the Champions League to play for: to try and get through to the quarter-finals and then attempt to qualify for the competition next season.
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The one ray of light is the potential signing of Juan Mata. Mata has been trading at a very short price to join United since Monday ( Sky Bet will continue to have odds on all the potential transfers until Sky Sports News call a halt to the window next week ) and although it would be a lot of money to spend, it would undoubtedly give the whole club a much-needed lift.
In contrast, Manchester City sail serenely on as Sky Bet's even-money favourites to win the Premier League. They have a big month coming up with Chelsea on the next Monday Night Football and then Barcelona in the Champions League.
It was fascinating to listen to Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher debate whether Manuel Pellegrini should change the 4-4-2 system that is blowing away Premier League opponents, especially for the trip to the Nou Camp. It's 106 goals and counting and only 44 more needed to beat Chelsea's all-time record in one season.
One upside to Chelsea's three goals and win over United was that Jose Mourinho was in an excellent mood for his FWA Tribute Dinner at the Savoy on Sunday evening. It was a real privilege to be there and the highlight was the speech made by Frank Lampard about his manager.
Frank said what summed Jose up was how he telephoned every day after his mother died to check how he was and if there was anything he could do to help. That is man-management at its finest.
He's had plenty of big pressure days before with Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck's but Saturday will surely be as nervous as Paul Nicholls has ever been. He has nursed the latter back to full fitness and at Cheltenham this weekend we will find out if the great Big Buck's still retains all the ability we last saw coasting to his 18th consecutive victory in December 2012 at Newbury.
Let's hope he does.
"Big Buck's is already a hurdling legend but the sport needs him. He's a people's horse and one of the few in the sport that everyone knows. He's probably the only horse at the Festival that can take racing on to the back, and possibly front, page of the newspapers."
New jockey Sam Twiston-Davies is bound to have plenty of butterflies' while Big Buck's' owner, Andy Stewart, has admitted to being "terrified" about Saturday but he also seems confident.
Stewart told Sky Sports and Sportinglife.com this week "everything that he has been doing at home, the racecourse gallop he had and especially the work that he did with Sam Twiston-Davies earlier this week is saying to the experts, Paul Nicholls and Clifford Baker and Rose Loxton who rides the horse out every day, is that he could be back to the form that he was when he won the race at Newbury in a common canter".
Let's hope he's right and the mighty Big Buck's successfully storms back on to the scene on Saturday.
As well as the return of a superstar, we are set for the most informative weekend of clues for the Cheltenham Festival that we've had so far this season. Great races all over the place and the deluge of rain has relented enough to allow some decent racing ground at Cheltenham and Doncaster. The form should be a lot more relevant to the Festival than the recent slogs we've seen all round the country's racecourses.
It's the best National Hunt card I can remember on Town Moor with Annie Power set to be the star of the show, along with some of the best two mile novice chasers and a vintage renewal of the Sky Bet Chase. The boys at Sky Bet HQ in Leeds must be thrilled with the turnout for the race and I'm sure their innovative racing PR Manager, Michael Shinners, will have a special or two up his sleeve for the punters as well.
It's the best Grand National trial we will see and plenty of the runners could also feature at Cheltenham in March. Unioniste is the class act but Gullinbursti is the one that interests me. I tipped him in this column for the big fixed brush hurdle race at Haydock in November where he was a decent fifth to Gevrey Chambertin. He was then a touch disappointing back over fences at Newbury but that race turned in to a sprint in the straight which didn't suit him.
A fast pace looks guaranteed in the Sky Bet Chase and Gullinbursti looks one of the progressive types in the field who is capable of replicating what stablemate Shotgun Paddy achieved so impressively in handicap company at Warwick a couple of weeks ago.
The Arkle trial looks a belter. Caid du Berlais is a chaser to follow. He was second to Jezki on his reappearance at Down Royal. After that, he could have been targeted at any number of top hurdle races but the Nicholls team sent him chasing and Caid du Berlais looked an absolute natural over fences at Exeter in December.
It was as good a round of jumping, once they started to race properly, as I have seen from a novice this season. It's set to be with best novice chase of the season so far with Rock on Ruby, Valdez, Grandouet etc. in the field but Caid du Berlais excites me most of all.
The most exciting race of the weekend is still to come with the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday and the re-match between Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor.
All three came out off he Christmas contest with positives and Sunday is now the ultimate test. I firmly believe the winner on Sunday will go on to lift the hurdling crown at Cheltenham in March. Hurricane Fly is a machine around Leopardstown but I can't wait to see what Jezki can do given a more positive and aggressive ride from AP McCoy.
What a weekend it promises to be with big points are available left, right and centre in the Ten-to-Follow competition, and in particular our fiercely competitive in-house Sky Sports competition.
I'm delighted to say I'm winning the contest at the moment - on the bridle. Racing luminaries and heavyweights like esteemed Sportinglife.com editor David Ord as well as Rachel Wyse, Richard Fahey, who is languishing in the relegation places, Alex Hammond, Wally Pyrah, Dale Tempest et al. are all trailing in my wake. If Jezki wins on Sunday, Sky Bet may decide to pay out early on the winner.....