So it has come to this. With due deference to Wigan Athletic and Stoke City, respective visitors – or sacrificial offerings – to Chelsea and Manchester United next Sunday, the Premier League title should be decided between the hours of 1.30pm and 6pm today. Chelsea lead the champions by one point and eight goals, so that even if they were to lose at Liverpool in the early kick-off, a draw for United at Sunderland in the later game would be insufficient to gain an advantage. If Chelsea win, they will become almost unbackable.
When the League's computer brought forth its fixtures on a quiet day last June, the game at Anfield was soon pinpointed as a potentially critical one, for both clubs. Only Rafa Benitez in his most optimistic mood, however, can still regard it in that light from the home team's point of view. Runners-up last season with an impressive 86 points and two defeats, they had reason to believe that this could just be the season when that long quest for a title ended.
This time, as so often in the past, 86 points would win it, but Liverpool's maximum is now a mere 68. Most of their supporters have given up on even fourth place, and in the light of Thursday's Europa League elimination by Atletico Madrid are merely debating where the greatest fault lies: with the players, the manager or the owners.
Crowd reaction today will be interesting. A few choruses, no doubt, of "Chelsea's got no 'istory", a ditty that sounds increasingly irrelevant by the year as the London club add another trophy or two to their collection; but coming so soon after another numbing disappointment, it may be hard to stump up the sort of enthusiastic abuse that used to greet a Jose Mourinho team in those parts. Partly, of course, because depriving Chelsea of any points greatly increases the chances of the damned United making history with a fourth title in succession and the 19th in all, breaking Liverpool's own record.
Carlo Ancelotti has come across them in no fewer than three European Cup finals, losing in 1984 as a Roma player and in the miracle of Istanbul 21 years later before extracting revenge two years after that in Athens. Remarkably, he has never visited Anfield as player or manager and must be wondering what this latest epic encounter will bring, but the signs are promising. Liverpool are missing their only scorer with more than 10 League goals – the stricken Fernando Torres has 18 from 22 games; they have just gone a draining 120 minutes against Atletico, suffering bitter disappointment; and were so weak in personnel that all Benitez could summon from the substitutes' bench when it mattered was Nabil El Zhar, Philipp Degen and Daniel Pacheco. Javier Mascherano, a midfielder, was at right-back, and Glen Johnson, the very right-footed right-back, was on the left.
Ancelotti says that after Chelsea suffered a similar setback, being drummed out of the Champions' League by Mourinho's Internazionale, "we had a very good meeting with the players. We changed our aim immediately, moving our aim to the League and the FA Cup." There is hardly the same incentive for today's opponents, even if he insists: "For us it is better to think they will play their best, because we will stay in focus."
His squad may be an ageing one, but that only gives them greater motivation to seize the Sunday. It is a demonstrably stronger one too, according to Benitez himself, who points out enviously: "The spine of their team is seven players and for us three or four players. It's a big difference. Look at the players we had to use from the bench [against Atletico]. After spending big money Chelsea built a good team with [Claudio] Ranieri and Mourinho and those players are still there to allow them to compete."
Money, money, money. It's a rich manager's world, according to the Spaniard, who says he signed his lucrative new five-year contract last year on the understanding that substantial sums would be available. Instead he has spent less in the last two transfer windows than departures have brought in. With the club up for sale, there can be no guarantee of significant funding being available this summer, which is why Benitez is playing the tease about his future.
"At the end, things changed," he said of the owners' financial commitment and plans. "We've had a bad season and hopefully things will be different in the future, but at the moment I can't talk about the future because I don't know what's going on."
Juventus, back in the hands of the dynastic Agnelli family as of three days ago, would clearly like him as their new coach. A rich (very rich), ambitious new Liverpool owner could easily persuade him to stay, but he will not go as far as committing himself to any desire to do so right now. Instead, he follows up "the conditions changed" with the reminder that "I left Valencia because conditions changed".
The future, he insists for now, "is Chelsea". The Kop will see it that way too for at least the start of the afternoon, though their mood will be a significant barometer. Expect an early chorus of Benitez's name and later, if the game is drifting away from them, some abuse for the American owners. Whether they will be applauding the potential champions at the end of the game, or want to, is as unclear as the future of a proud club and its manager.