Technically the Premier League season finishes next Sunday. Probably, however, it will be determined today. A glance at the final fixture for the two contenders for the title - Chelsea at home to Wigan, Manchester United hosting Stoke - indicates that this is the pivotal day of the campaign.
Today is a test of character and a test of nerve. It examines their ability on the road. And in a season of increasing unpredictability, it raises the chances of one final twist in the title race. Chelsea have a one-point advantage that, given their goal difference, almost amounts to two; Manchester United have the easier fixture. They go to Sunderland's Stadium of Light, where they have never lost a league game; Chelsea head to Anfield, to renew the intense rivalry of the nouveau riche and the traditional. Liverpool's pursuit of fourth place means they have a greater incentive to win than mid-table Sunderland. The complications caused by the knock-on effect of handing United a record crown only add to the intrigue.
Since the arrivals on English soil of Jose Mourinho, the former manager of the London club, and Rafa Benitez (or, some might say, Roman Abramovich), Chelsea against Liverpool has provided a titanic battle. The first match of the Russian's ownership was a 2-1 win at Anfield. A repeat would all but claim a third title of that era. With Liverpool, by their own admission, fatigued by playing 120 minutes against Atletico Madrid on Thursday night, their task is "more difficult than ever", according to Benitez, the Liverpool manager. Sir Alex Ferguson, looking to forge an unlikely alliance, has looked to goad and galvanise historic rivals into doing his side a favour.
Chelsea require none, merely to win. "This team has the quality to win double titles but we have to show it and if we play this season like we did in all the big games then we can hope that we can win and win the Premier League," Branislav Ivanovic, the Chelsea defender, told the club's official website. For Didier Drogba, the architect of Chelsea's October win over Liverpool, it is a chance to complete his own grand slam, having exerted a huge influence in both victories against Arsenal and United, for Frank Lampard, the chance to banish the memory of his wrongly-awarded red card at Anfield last season.
But these are two schizophrenic sides. Chelsea, with 93 goals, are closing in on United's Premier League record of 97 in a season. They have a capacity to run riot and a habit of self-destructing, most recently against Tottenham a fortnight ago. Whenever Carlo Ancelotti's side appear a certainty to win the league, they slip up, when their credentials are questioned, they tend to respond emphatically.
Defeats have often been humbling, triumphs terrific. John Terry, available again after suspension, epitomises a side that can reach heights and plumb depths within a short space of time. The trio of Drogba, Lampard and Florent Malouda have displayed more consistency than the team as a whole. For United, the same can be said of Wayne Rooney. The striker may make another swift return from injury at the Stadium of Light today. Yet their challenge has been revitalised by their veterans and an age-old habit. Paul Scholes's injury-time derby winner against Manchester City was the catalyst then Ryan Giggs's expertly converted penalties against Tottenham provided proof United are back in contention.
"I hope it goes down to the last game. If we get a chance to win it in the last game, that's all we want," said Ferguson in his pre-match press conference. A week ago, having played before Chelsea and briefly overhauled them, the rhetoric from the United camp was consistent: the pressure was on their rivals. Further evidence, perhaps, of Ferguson's fondness for mind games, but now the staggered kick-off times bring the opposite scenario; a result for Liverpool and United have the chance to overtake Chelsea again.
It is a time when everything is about context. For Chelsea, nothing but a win will do. They are not to know if United will stumble. For Ferguson's men, they have to trust in others, never an attitude to make them comfortable, and ensure that if Chelsea stumble, they take advantage. It is the sort of day when champions reveal themselves. It is the sort of day when champions are made. firstname.lastname@example.org