What usually separates teams at the top of a league is not results against the so-called 'lesser' teams but instead how they fare against the teams around them in the table. Of course, by beating a near rival, not only are you gaining three points but you are also denying them any gain, making those games in some sense doubly as important.
For teams at the bottom, meanwhile, there is a often a feeling of trepidation when a top team comes to town, but also a buzz that can mean the team lifts their performance for the big game. With little expectation ahead of such games, a relaxed group of players can overperform and that can mean potential upsets.
When looking at an alternative 'top half' Premier League table, which only takes into account each team's results against sides in the current top 10, there are vast differences from the usual standings. Manchester United, at the summit of the Premier League, are the only team that have exactly the same position in both tables - an indisputable sign of their prowess in the league and consistency, whoever the opposition.
United's 23 points from 11 games against the other 9 sides that make up the top flight's top 10 is the best in the division, but does not leave them with anything like the same kind of lead that they currently enjoy in the table that really matters. Whilst they have taken maximum points from their games against City, Chelsea and Arsenal, their two top-half losses came against Everton and Tottenham, while they have also dropped points against Swansea and Spurs again, each result of which Sir Alex Ferguson no doubt voiced his disgust at.
So, with only a two point cushion over their followers in the 'top half' table, clearly they make the biggest profits against teams in the bottom half. Both Chelsea and Manchester City trail United on 21 points, though City have played an extra game against the 'better teams' giving them a slightly worse points per game rate. United's two blue rivals in the title race clearly do well against other big teams. City have lost fewer games than any other other side in the Premier League (1) against teams in the top half, for example. But then, City and Chelsea are 9 and 16 points behind United in the title race.
Rafa Benitez's side have dropped far too many points against the Premier League's lesser sides, including throwing away leads in their last two games at Reading and Newcastle. Whilst they have won at the Emirates, Goodison Park and White Hart Lane this season, they lost at home to QPR not so long ago as well. Chelsea's problems lie in producing consistently good performances against the teams in the bottom half rather than the top.
In the race for fourth, Everton have a slightly better record against top 10 sides than Arsenal and Tottenham, averaging 1.54 points per game against those teams, but possibly most notable about these three teams' campaigns is that Arsenal have played 2 more matches against 'better' sides than their rivals, and that could be vital in the run-in, with only 13 games left.
Norwich have done well in claiming 15 points from 13 games against the big-guns, including impressive 1-0 wins over both Manchester United and Arsenal that have done much to keep them out of the relegation fight, but they have also conceded 10 goals in two games to Liverpool and are lacking a degree of consistency that could otherwise see them rise up the table.
At the other end of the league, the biggest climbers in the 'top half' table compared to the full table are Aston Villa. Despite shipping 17 goals in losses to Chelsea, Spurs and City, the Villains have picked up 12 points against teams currently in the top 10. Only Liverpool (7) have drawn more against those sides than Villa (6), who also have 2 wins to their name, including their fantastic 3-1 win at Anfield. That was a great win, there is no doubt about that, but Villa keep dropping points to the teams around them, losing to Wigan, Southampton and Newcastle in recent weeks, which are all the more important given their perilous situation.
While Norwich are lacking consistency, arguably no team in the Premier League characterises inconsistency this season as much as Liverpool. Up in 7th in the table, they are one of only two teams yet to win a single game this season against any of the teams in the top half of the league. They have drawn a fair few, but the 7 points they have picked up in 13 games against the top half is the main reason why they will not be challenging for honours and almost certainly not even a Champions League place this season. While they ran both Arsenal and City close in their last two matches, they could not hold on to the lead and continued their poor run without a win against the big teams.
Southampton, the other team that have not beaten a single team from the top half of the table, have the worst record in the league in terms of games against those sides, with just 5 points collected from 13 matches, losing on 8 occasions. They have held their own against Manchester United on two occasions this season, but simply could not get anything out of either game. They have also, though, been thoroughly outplayed by Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham and need to start picking up more points from these games in their quest for survival.