Big games, small margins; if all goes to form this afternoon – which has not always been the case in this convoluted season – the Premier League will be decided by a single point for the first time since 1999. Effectively, you might say, a single game and a single goal, the one that Didier Drogba scored at Old Trafford five weeks ago from an offside position, enabling Chelsea to beat Manchester United and supplant them as leaders and favourites for the title.
United are understandably sore about that and equally so about the alleged foul on Wes Brown before John Terry headed the only goal in the other meeting of the two main contenders, at Stamford Bridge back in November. After that game United were five points behind and it was a creditable effort to achieve Sir Alex Ferguson's stated aim of hauling themselves back within reach by the turn of the year.
Their experience on the run-in as bums grew squeaky would be invaluable, he insisted, and when Chelsea had their blip in March he seemed to be right. Then, on that Saturday lunchtime in Manchester, with Wayne Rooney sitting in the stand, the referee's assistant Simon Beck was deceived by Drogba's run on to Salomon Kalou's pass and the records were again at the London side's beck and call. With nerve successfully held against a demoralised Liverpool last weekend, the club's first Double, in Carlo Ancelotti's debut season, is the obvious bet now, rather than United's unprecedented fourth successive title and 19th in all.
"If we are able to win the Double, it will be an honour for every one of us that works here," Ancelotti said on Friday. "For me it's very important. If I'm able to do this I will be very happy, to stay in the history of one club is very good for a coach, and above all for me in my first season here."
Careful not to count chickens or trophies before they materialise, he was nevertheless prepared to acknowledge the importance of the wins at Old Trafford and Anfield, part of a hugely impressive head-to-head sequence in which United, Arsenal and Liverpool were all beaten at home and away. "The most important moment of our season will be Sunday because Sunday will decide if we win the title or not. But against Manchester United was a fantastic moment for us because before that game we were in the second position and we come back in the first position with this victory. It was an important moment against Liverpool also because it was a very difficult step to win at Anfield. I think that the key moment we can say was the victory against Manchester United and also against Liverpool."
Chelsea have still suffered half a dozen defeats, which will be the highest number inflicted on any champions (United have lost seven) for 10 years. Yet better to lose to those just outside the top bracket – like Tottenham, Aston Villa, Manchester City (twice) and Everton – than conceding points to more serious challengers.
The one other team to beat them were today's opponents, Wigan Athletic, who like Villa three weeks later took advantage of some poor defending at a time when every set-piece against Ancelotti's defence looked threatening. "I think we improved [on that] but there are a lot of teams in this championship who have a lot of skills with the head," he said. "They have physical players, so it can happen to concede goals on the set-pieces."
Like United at home to Stoke, Chelsea today face unfashionable opponents who delight in upsetting posh apple carts. Paul Scharner, the combative Austrian midfielder who plays his last game for Wigan before seeking a new challenge, has learnt the football vernacular for denying good players time and space and says that is the approach his team will employ at Stamford Bridge. "You have to get in their faces because otherwise you can see, when they played against Stoke [7-0] or Aston Villa [7-1], it's impossible to play and you're out of the game," Scharner said. "The games that we won this season, we were getting in their faces. In the Premier League if you don't press high or press the opponents then it's very difficult and against Chelsea you will have no chance. Why let them play their game? That will be our focus."
He remembers playing at home to United on the final day two seasons ago, when they needed a win to secure the title. "It was a similar situation, and you could see United were very, very nervous. If you are in first place after 37 games then you deserve to win the League but it's not over until six o'clock on Sunday and we'll know who's won." United, from their own experience, will not hold out much hope for their near-neighbours who, as Scharner jokes, "got close against Manchester United, it was just that they scored 10 goals [5-0 and 5-0]".
So for the second successive week there was a resigned air to Sir Alex Ferguson's thoughts. "We've gone to the last game and we've been here many times," he said. "What can you do? You hope and pray that something happens at Stamford Bridge and it doesn't look promising for us but while they have to play 90 minutes, they have to play 90 minutes. We're in there on the last day of the season so we have to get credit for that."
It is a better shot at history than some of us thought they would manage without Cristiano Ronaldo, whose loss Ferguson laments, or Carlos Tevez, of whom he says dismissively: "I don't think the loss of Tevez has changed us in any way whatsoever. The big loss for us was the best player in the world. Going into the Chelsea match, with Rooney being out and [Michael] Owen being out, we lacked that penetration. But you can agonise over these things too much. I've done it in the past and you think we could have got points here or there but then you're lucky to get some points."
The six lost against Chelsea, however, do rankle. "It balances itself out but I do think the referees' decisions in the Chelsea games were crucial, particularly the one at Stamford Bridge was a killer because we were in control of the game. We didn't deserve that but it happens and it was early enough in the season to recover from."
Whatever happens this afternoon, Ferguson may go for one major signing this summer to avoid putting too much pressure on the younger players of whom he has high hopes. "The structure of the team is all right. We want to improve but the question is how can you improve and where can you improve? It's difficult to assess what we need. We've plenty of players and we've got young strikers. We've signed Hernandez, we've got Diouf, Welbeck and Macheda, who could be a top player. Man City will buy and Tottenham will buy now they're in the Champions' League. Harry [Redknapp] likes to buy! But he won't be at the corner shop this time, he'll be able to go to the supermarket."
It will not have escaped Ferguson's eye that Chelsea's multi-national youngsters have just won the FA Youth Cup (beating Villa), which may or may not be as good a guide to future success as it once was. Ancelotti intends to sit down with Roman Abramovich after the FA Cup final and discuss potential transfer targets as well as which players – probably Michael Ballack, maybe Joe Cole – are released.
In the immediate future there is a League title to be won or lost. "We are in a very good situation," Chelsea's manager said. "It doesn't look promising," admitted United's.
Arsenal v Fulham
Fulham eyes are on Hamburg, which after defeat by Stoke on Wednesday is likely to cost them any chance of a top-10 finish. Arsenal should take advantage to secure third place.
Aston Villa v Blackburn Rovers
Villa require a win to make sure of finishing in sixth place for the third successive season, before Martin O'Neill sits down to talk turkey and transfer funds. Only two home defeats all season and a third would be a surprise.
Bolton Wanderers v Birmingham City
Gary Megson took 18 points from 18 games and was sacked; Owen Coyle has 18 from 19 and somehow they are comfortably clear of trouble. A commendably good campaign meanwhile for promoted Birmingham in ninth place.
Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur
It would be well worth Spurs going all out for a win just in case Arsenal should lose and concede third place, although whether they have the energy after Wednesday's win at Eastlands is debatable. Burnley take their leave having enjoyed the ride.
Chelsea v Wigan Athletic
Is there one more title twist left? It would seem unlikely, although Stamford Bridge will remain nervous unless Chelsea score early and add at least another before long. Wigan are just happy to have stayed up for another season.
Everton v Portsmouth
A similar number of points to previous seasons leaves Everton eighth and out of Europe instead of in the top six, illustrating how tough it has become up there for the likes of David Moyes. Just as well to have an object lesson in financial imprudence visiting them.
Hull City v Liverpool
How different life looked for Liverpool when beating Hull 6-1 to stay third in the table. Now an epoch rather than a season could be over. The toothless Tigers have the worst of both worlds: predictable relegation and desperate debt.
Manchester United v Stoke City
Perhaps before kick-off they could play "Wishing and Hoping" instead of those naff Man United songs. Lots of television close-ups no doubt of home supporters with radios, though they must fear the worst from Stamford Bridge.
West Ham United v Manchester City
Having once been relegated with a relatively mammoth 42 points, the Hammers have stayed up pretty comfortably with 34. If it's tough at the top, it's a lot easier at the bottom these days. World domination is put on hold as City play for fifth place.
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Sunderland
Despite scoring only 30 goals all season, Wolves have still found at least three far worse teams than themselves. Darren Bent has nearly that many himself, and a couple more could push Sunderland into the top half of the table, just.
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