Manchester United and Chelsea, who already have a date in the Champions League final to determine continental bragging rights, first must settle the matter of domestic dominance this weekend entering the final straight of a thrilling English Premiership season.
Title-holders United will move to the brink of glory today if they see off West Ham at Old Trafford while Chelsea would then have to play catch-up with a success on Monday at unpredictable Newcastle.
Four games ago Chelsea were five points adrift and the race looked done and dusted in United’s favor.
That was until last weekend’s victory the Blues notched at the expense of their rivals at Stamford Bridge, a win which prompted Chelsea’s German midfielder Michael Ballack to insist that “the pressure is on them because last week they looked like they were the champions.”
Nonetheless, United’s hugely superior goal difference is worth a point and should they see off the Hammers and then win at Wigan they will indeed be home and dry.
For Edwin van der Sar, United’s keeper, Sir Alex Fergson’s men must switch their focus back to the league after the emotion of their win over Barca which secured a first Champions League final since their famous success over Bayern Munich in the Catalan capital nine years ago.
“We’ve got to the final and it’s a great feeling,” van der Sar said.
But he warned: “Minds have to be clear again now because we have an important game on Saturday and that’s how it is at this club.”
Van der Sar and company will not underestimate the Hammers as the Londoners won at Old Trafford at the end of last season with Carlos Tevez, now of United, scoring.
Chelsea’s trip to Newcastle comes at a time when the Magpies have finally shown belated signs of life under Kevin Keegan in putting together a seven-match unbeaten run.
For Blues’ striker Didier Drogba, their talisman against Liverpool in an epic Champions League semi-final return at the Bridge, success in Europe is the top priority after back-to-back domestic titles in 2005 and 2006 under former coach Jose Mourinho.
“Right from the beginning of the season the Champions League was our target,” according to the Ivory Coast international.
Keegan, famously out-psyched by Sir Alex in the title run-in 12 years ago during his first spell in charge of Newcastle, is relishing Monday’s encounter — but neutral regarding the championship’s final destination.
“I really don’t care who wins the title, but I want us to put in a performance against Chelsea and if by doing that, we help Manchester United win the title, that’s just the way it goes,” said the Newcastle boss, who has steered his side into midtable.
With Arsenal and Liverpool already guaranteed to join Manchester United and Chelsea in the Champions League next season the soft underbelly of the Premiership are simply happy to have confirmed membership as Everton, Aston Villa and FA Cup finalists Portsmouth fight it out for fifth place.
In contrast, down at the bottom the price of failure, already paid by Derby, is in the tens of millions of dollars.
The remaining two relegation slots look destined for Fulham and any one from Bolton, Reading and currently third from bottom Birmingham — though Middlesbrough and Wigan still have to sweat it out, despite a four and five-point cushion respectively.
Fulham are three points from safety as they host Birmingham, two points ahead of them, in a true “death or glory” encounter.