This weekend the hallowed plains of Upton Park shall play host to Liverpool, erstwhile kings of English football, but for so long reduced to also-rans.
This season Liverpool have managed to construct a sturdier title challenge, altogether more robust than in recent years where they have petered out by January.
It would take Manchester United to drop 6-points in their remaining four games for Liverpool to win the title this year, but they have provided the champions with their closest challenge in the league.
While things looked promising a few weeks back following Liverpool’s 4-1 demolition of United at Old Trafford, Man U have since found form and characteristic slip-ups against lesser opposition in the middle part of the season would appear to have cost Liverpool once more.
But for all their progress under Rafa Benitez, they remain over-reliant on their two talismans, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
Both players make a strong case for being considered the best in the world in their respective positions, but you can’t say the same with any conviction of any other Liverpool player in regard to the Premier League, let alone the world.
They do have their share of good players and their qualities as a side are self-evident, Jamie Carragher and Xavi Alonso supplementing Gerrard and Torres.
Javier Mascherano is integral to their upsurge and is in line to make his first return to Upton Park since being kept out of our side by the mighty Hayden Mullins, having missed out with injury last time Liverpool were in town.
So it seems that depth of real quality has once again let Liverpool down - not that we are in any position to comment whatsoever as we currently have all the depth of a teaspoon.
2. Relegation Roll-Call
We are fast approaching the time of year when the axe of relegation falls onto the scrawny necks of underperforming clubs, severing the vacuous heads of managerial inadequacy from the ailing body of sub-standard playing staff.
Being well clear of the trouble ourselves, we are able to adopt the pompous and accusatory position usually reserved for Simon Cowell or Mark Lawrenson.
It’s difficult to choose from the contenders, although Newcastle are a given. As are Middlesbrough.
Newcastle have nobody to blame but themselves and the calamitous way in which a couple of seasons in the sun in the mid-90’s has governed the ‘revolving-door’ running of the club ever since.
Middlesbrough are lamentable in every sense bar their Chairman, Steve Gibson. I even think Gareth Southgate is a nice enough bloke, but it looks as if the Fates will have their vengeful way in recompense for the summer of ‘96. That Pizza Hut advert was unforgivable.
West Brom look doomed, but conversely it is they who I would like to see pull off a miracle turn around. Unlikely, as it would take something even more miraculous than our own escape two seasons ago or that of Fulham last year.
In a perfect world I’m torn between the prospect of Sunderland joining Boro and Newcastle in a triple-whammy for the North East ‘hotbed of football’, or the spectacular fall from grace of Hull City.
Hull were most people’s second team a few short months ago, but their disastrous run of picking up just 8 points from their last 20 games puts them in the thick of it.
The law of averages dictated that after such a momentous start, this chronic bad spell was always coming and erratic manager Phil Brown seems utterly powerless to prevent the slide.
With Brown’s increasing cult of personality, perma-tan, ridiculous radio-mic sellotaped to his face and misguided purchase of Jimmy Bullard (whose knee is so obviously being held together with sorbet and damp cornflakes), I confess to having more sympathy with the plight of Phil Spector than that of Hull City.
Either way, there are big games this weekend as Hull host Stoke City and Middlesbrough visit Newcastle.
In this same fixture last season we picked up our first home win against Liverpool in six attempts, courtesy of a last minute Mark Noble penalty.
It was a deserved victory and one born of a high work-rate throughout the team, something we’ll need again on Saturday.
We have generally been Liverpool’s bitch for many years, not having won at Anfield since 1963 (?!) and last year’s 3-points constituting our only home win against them since the turn of the century.
With the title Man United’s to lose, Liverpool are not yet lacking in motivation as they would still go top were they to win on Saturday. With the prospect of European football enticingly within our reach, both teams have something to play for at this late stage of the season, which could make for an exciting encounter.
Will we, won’t we?
The prospect of European football next season is coming evermore tantalisingly into focus.
The various mini-leagues that constitute the Premiership are becoming ever tighter, and none more so than our own particular battle for European qualification.
Saturday’s noteworthy win at Stoke City (only the 4th time they have lost at home all season) was a must if we are to claim what seemed so unlikely back in October.
Middlesbrough’s condemnation to the Championship prior to the final day would do us a favour as our two other remaining fixtures (today’s game and Everton away) are far from bankers.
But, none of those in contention have particularly easy run-ins:
Man City – Man Utd (a), tottenham (h), Bolton (h)
Fulham – Villa (h), Newcastle (a), Everton (a)
tottenham – Everton (a), Man City (h), Liverpool (a)
A demoralised Boro and the seven fans they are sure to bring to the Boleyn would provide a nice fillip should we come unstuck against Merseyside’s finest.
Zola seems to think four points will do it, but I’m not so sure. With Everton having one eye on the FA Cup Final, a point on Saturday followed by a couple of end-of season wins would see us alright.
5. Beauty And The Beast
How joyous it was to watch the hulking Chelsea juggernaut despatched from the Champions League by a balletic Barcelona this week.
Cries of ‘conspiracy’ ring hollow, for as perhaps one of Chelsea’s four penalty shouts was nailed on, so Eric Abidal’s dismissal in the second half for Barcelona was unduly harsh.
Man United vs Barcelona is the final everyone outside of Stamford Bridge and The Emirates wanted to see, and one hopes that it can be contested fairly between the 22 players on the pitch, bereft of any outside influence.
Not least from myself as on Wednesday night whilst watching the game at home, I dropped a chocolate biscuit and Didier Drogba fell over.
Falling only just short of last year’s final for blissful catastrophe, it was good to see the Chelsea players, particularly cry-baby Drogba, take their defeat with all the graceful class of….
….well, I have been searching high and low for a biting and offensive metaphor here, but can do no better than ‘a bunch of Chelsea players’.