Sir Alex Ferguson believes this lunchtime's visit to West Ham could go a long way to determining if Manchester United's quest for the treble will be realised.
Ferguson said earlier this week that, because of the injuries afflicting his squad, emulating the heroics of 1999 – when his side won the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, would be far harder than completing the initial hat-trick 12 years ago.
Despite a two-week international break, the league leaders are actually worse off defensively than they were for the 1-0 win over Bolton a fortnight ago. While the return of captain Nemanja Vidic is a huge boost, the suspension of Jonny Evans and injury to Wes Brown restrict options. With Fabio da Silva very likely to slot in at right-back, they head to Upton Park weakened.
It is hardly ideal as United visit a ground where they have triumphed on only six of their last 17 visits. No wonder Ferguson is attaching such significance to the fixture. "[This is] the big one because we are depleted in one area of the pitch," the United manager said yesterday. "With eight games to go, you can't exclude anyone. Whoever is the most consistent will win this league.
"But we should not over-stretch ourselves in terms of looking forward. This game is as important as any," Ferguson added.