LONDON (AFP) - Chelsea's clash with Liverpool this weekend was always going to be a significant encounter in the Premier Leage title race but a difficult week has raised the stakes involved for both clubs.
It may only be six weeks into the new season, but both Rafael Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti know that a defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday will represent a significant blow to their prospects of wresting the title away from Manchester United.
Having lost twice already this season, Liverpool travel south with less margin for error than their hosts and with morale dampened by the poor display that led to a 2-0 defeat at Fiorentina in midweek.
Ancelotti, who only speaks Italian to his squad when he is angry, has had to call on his mother tongue twice in the last week.
The former AC Milan coach was almost as unimpressed by a laboured 1-0 victory at Apoel Nicosia in midweek as he was by last Saturday's 3-1 defeat at Wigan, which ended his perfect start to life in London.
Predictably, the noises from both camps have all been about the need to put things right on Sunday.
"We have to be better against Liverpool," Chelsea skipper John Terry acknowledged. "They will be up for it and they are a big club, so we will have to respond again when we play them."
The corresponding fixture last season saw Liverpool end Chelsea's 86-match unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge but more recent history is less encouraging for Benitez, who watched his side get overrun in midfield and look distinctly shaky at the back in Florence.
Javier Mascherano's return from injury should bolster the protection offered to the back four but Benitez must be contemplating breaking up the centreback partnership of Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel that has looked shaky of late, particularly as Daniel Agger is ready for a return following close-season back surgery.
Whatever he decides, Benitez has made it clear he is expecting a significant improvement. "I believe you will see a different Liverpool in the Chelsea match," he said. "A totally different performance with a different mentality."
Reds skipper Steven Gerrard echoed that theme. "We need to get the defeat in Florence out of our system quickly, because it's a massive game at Chelsea," he said. "We need to produce a reaction."
Chelsea's defeat at Wigan enabled Manchester United to top the table for the first time this season and the champions will expect to stay there after the return of old boy Steve Bruce and his Sunderland squad to Old Trafford on Saturday.
United appear to be hitting form with the remarkable form of Ryan Giggs compensating for the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid.
Ronaldo's departure has also resulted in Wayne Rooney
being deployed regularly in a central striking role and the England foward believes improved team-work is helping to compensate for the loss of the world player of the year.
"Obviously last season the team was based a lot around Cristiano but this year there's a few more players chipping in with goals, which is great to see."
Theo Walcott is expected to return from injury when Arsenal entertain Blackburn on Sunday and the England winger is upbeat about the Gunners' prospects of landing their first silverware since the 2005 FA Cup.
"We have gained a lot of experience over the last few years and although we haven't won any trophies, I think that will change this year," Walcott said.
"If you want to win trophies, it is important to keep the group together - Manchester United are a good example of that."
Fourth-placed Tottenham travel to Bolton on Saturday while Manchester City will have Emmanuel Adebayor available for Monday's trip to Aston Villa after the Togo striker escaped a ban for his provocative goal celebration against former club Arsenal last month.
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated)
Bolton v Tottenham, Burnley v Birmingham, Hull City v Wigan, Manchester Utd v Sunderland (1630 GMT), Wolves v Portsmouth
Arsenal v Blackburn (1230 GMT), Chelsea v Liverpool (1500 GMT), Everton v Stoke City, West Ham v Fulham
Aston Villa v Manchester City (1900 GMT)