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London - After two stultifying 0-0 draws at Stamford Bridge and a frosty “welcome” from home fans Rafael Benitez may be relieved to venture across London on Saturday when his Chelsea side face West Ham United at Upton Park.
The Spaniard was probably not expecting a ticker-tape welcome when the club's owner Roman Abramovich hired him as an interim manager after Roberto Di Matteo's harsh sacking last week, but the depth of ill feeling directed towards the former Liverpool manager has been unprecedented.
His first match in charge, against champions Manchester City last Sunday, was greeted with boos, unflattering chants and “Rafa Out” signs.
Wednesday's dismal draw with local rivals Fulham was played out in almost complete silence as a pall of gloom appeared to descend on the club that just a few weeks earlier was top of the Premier League and playing sparkling, attacking football.
Quiet it most certainly will not be at Upton Park, where the home fans will give Benitez their own East End welcome for the opening game of a weekend of top flight action.
Chelsea were top of the table with 22 points a month ago when their unbeaten start was ended by Manchester United.
They have managed just four points since, have been embroiled in racism allegations against referee Mark Clattenburg, of which they have since back-tracked, are on the verge of a Champions League exit and sacked the manager that took the club to Europe's top club trophy.
West Ham will be licking their lips, even if the Hammers have slipped down to mid-table after consecutive defeats by Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Benitez will take some comfort from two clean sheets but after slipping seven points behind leaders Manchester United they need to start scoring again if their title challenge is not to be over before Christmas.
“Two clean sheets is something positive but still I want to score goals and be more offensive,” Benitez said after the draw against Fulham which extended Chelsea's dismal run without a league win to six.
“We have some confidence because we don't concede and if we can build from there I will be happy.”
Captain John Terry, midfielder Frank Lampard and striker Daniel Sturridge are all unlikely to be fit to face West Ham with Sturridge's absence meaning misfiring Fernando Torres will again be shouldering his side's attacking options.
Midweek victories for Manchester United and Manchester City underlined the growing feeling of a two-horse title race.
Despite neither side firing on all cylinders this season they are churning out victories.
United should overwhelm Reading in Saturday's evening kickoff (1730), although they will be wary after their previous away league game ended in a 1-0 defeat at Norwich City.
Rivals City, who are a point behind and still unbeaten, have a tougher looking test at home to Everton whose early-season form has cooled somewhat after a run of draws.
Fourth-placed West Bromwich Albion will look to get back on track after a midweek defeat at Swansea City with a home match against Stoke City while Tottenham Hotspur have crept back up to fifth following Wednesday's Gareth Bale-inspired win over Liverpool. They are away at Fulham.
“City are still on our tails so it's going to be a long season,” United manager Alex Ferguson, whose side go to Man City the following week, said on the club's website (www.manutd.com).
Arsenal find themselves down in seventh position in the table, already 12 points off the pace, and Saturday's visitors Swansea City will be no pushover after an impressive burst of form has left them just a point behind the Gunners.
While manager Arsene Wenger, unlike Benitez, still has the support of the majority of home fans, the rumblings of discontent will grow louder should his side fall further behind.
“At the moment, in the Premier League, we have played 14 games, eight away. We have played at both Liverpool clubs and the two Manchester clubs away from home,” Wenger said.
“If we play well at home, we have a chance to come back.” – Reuters