Chelsea have gone backwards this season, but that will offer only limited comfort to Manchester United ahead of the encounter at Old Trafford. While the supply of goals has been cut drastically, the side have been reverting to old ways and making the most of whatever impact the forwards can deliver. The 2010 title-winning campaign, garnished with the FA Cup, therefore turns out simply to have been a marvellous oddity.

The team scored 103 times in the Premier League then, entertaining everyone unaffected by a constitutional antipathy towards Chelsea. No side can stay at that level for long, least of all one in the process of being reshaped. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard provided 51 of those goals. Their combined tally in the League this season is 20.

It would have been unnatural for them to sustain the former impact even if Lampard had avoided injury towards the end of last year and malaria had not struck the Ivorian. Drogba is 33 and the midfielder will hit that birthday next month. Apart from the individual factors, Chelsea as a whole have drooped. With three matches left, the club has 66 goals to its name. United, on 71, have done a little better, but Sir Alex Ferguson and, if he should somehow keep the job, Carlo Ancelotti will know there is more rebuilding ahead.

Whether or not the Chelsea manager is retained, he has shown resilience and there is doggedness in the squad. Arsenal, by contrast, had excellent prospects of taking the title until quite recently, but Arsène Wenger, possibly in a misconceived attempt to reduce the pressure, chose to speak like a man with no real hope of landing the prize for the first time in seven years.

The tone adopted by Ancelotti and Ferguson is utterly different. At Chelsea there has been a knitted-brow level of concentration that smacks of the José Mourinho days in its efficiency. Eight victories and a draw have been extracted from the past nine League matches. In the midst of that sequence, United eliminated them from the Champions League, but Chelsea's focus on the domestic campaign intensified when a lesser group of players would have let their attention wander.

We may not get the chance to see Ancelotti remodel Chelsea, delightful as it would be if he had acquisitions in mind to compare with David Luiz, as much pure footballer as centre-half. The Italian will most likely be gone before we learn whether the £50m Fernando Torres would be galvanised if he had a pre-season in which to work with the manager.

It does not take much to be more stable than Chelsea, but Ferguson is so secure at Old Trafford that he can go about his work methodically since it will require far more than a bad afternoon or two to inspire misgivings. With a place claimed in the Champions League final there ought to be even fewer grumbles than usual, but on broader terms they can also be seen to have dipped. Come what may, United will finish with their lowest points total in the Premier League since 2005, when they came third.

By the same token, Chelsea will have 79 at best, their poorest return since reaching that same mark in 2004. The trend is to be welcomed since it means that results have been less monotonous, but no one can claim with a straight face that the competitiveness has been caused by an influx of thrusting new challengers. Manchester City might almost exist to confirm that affluence does not necessarily create allure.

When it comes to laying on goals in home League matches, City have been outdone by, among those below them in the table, Liverpool, Bolton and Newcastle. For the time being, it is Chelsea who have enough impact and solidity to meet United on an equal footing. Any disquiet among fans will lie with long-term considerations.

It remains to be seen how much more Roman Abramovich wishes to spend before the gradual tightening of regulations compels clubs to live within their means. As with other owners, he is said to be looking forward to rules that will save him from throwing his money away. That, though, cannot stop him from expecting a return on his outlay at Old Trafford on Sunday.