The growing belief that Liverpool are equipped to end their long wait for a Premier League title faces its sternest examination so far when they meet a flying Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge on Sunday (2:30 p.m.)
Chelsea are top on goal difference from Rafael Benitez's side, although the emphatic nature of their recent performances in the league contrasts sharply with Liverpool's.
Last weekend, Liverpool scrambled a 3-2 victory at home to Wigan Athletic after trailing twice while in their previous game they battled back from 2-0 down to beat Manchester City. Give Chelsea a lead and they are unlikely to hand out second chances.
Luiz Felipe Scolari has barely put a foot wrong since taking over at Stamford Bridge from the dour Avram Grant. The Brazilian sent a patched-up side out at Middlesbrough last weekend and they came home with a resounding 5-0 victory.
They have scored 19 goals and conceded just three in eight matches and where Jose Mourinho's title-winning teams were powerful and attritional, Scolari's version is playing with a swagger and no little panache.
Benitez has been criticised in the past for a poor Premier League points return against the big three of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, although this season's 2-1 defeat of United at Anfield was thoroughly deserved.
The Spaniard twice got the better of Mourinho's Chelsea in the Champions League but last season the sides met five times, including another two-legged European semi-final, and Liverpool failed to record a victory.
However, Scolari identified this week as Chelsea's toughest of the season so far with Liverpool's visit following so closely after Wednesday's 1-0 Champions League win over AS Roma.
Liverpool will badly miss striker Fernando Torres, absent from their 1-1 draw at Atletico Madrid with a hamstring injury, and the emphasis will be on Robbie Keane and Dirk Kuyt to try to end Chelsea's four and a half year unbeaten home league record.
However, the belief that even without Torres they are now real contenders is shared by Luis Garcia, whose goal helped Liverpool beat Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League semi-final.
"I have watched and you can see the team growing. If they continue in this way they could win the league," Garcia, now with Atletico, told Liverpool's website (www.liverpoolfc.tv).
"When I first joined, Chelsea were far better than us, but the gap is closing and Liverpool can now win the league."
Fourth-placed Arsenal, fresh from romping to 5-2 win at Fenerbahce on Tuesday, visit West Ham United on Sunday (5:00 p.m.).
Manchester United, who are hitting their stride after a sluggish start and are fifth with a game in hand, travel to struggling Everton (12:00 p.m.) on Saturday.
Third-placed Hull City aim to continue their dream start at West Bromwich Albion (Saturday 3:00 p.m.).
(Editing by Padraic Halpin/Rex Gowar)
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