with Nick Pulford
Manchester United could seal the third leg of a possible quadruple this week with two Premier League games, against Manchester City and Wigan, that have the potential to bring them the title with two games to spare. And, with the Champions League final against Barcelona to follow, United stand on the verge of a pair of momentous triumphs.
Barcelona are a mighty obstacle but if they can be overcome, United would become the first team to retain the trophy in the Champions League era. Only two defending champions have reached the final again the following year since the advent of the Champions League (Ajax and Juventus both losing their second final in the mid-1990s), so United's return to the final is a rare achievement.
A hat-trick of domestic titles has even more rarity value; only United (1999 to 2001) have managed it in the Premier League era, and the only other club to achieve the feat since the second world war was Liverpool (1982 to 1984). It is almost inconceivable that this United team will fail to join that list of all-time greats, as they would need to lose two of their last four league games, or win only one of them, for Liverpool to pip them to the title.
That scenario also needs Liverpool to win their last three games and, if Rafa Benitez's Reds fail to win at West Ham tonight, the door would open for United to clinch the title by beating Manchester City tomorrow and Wigan on Wednesday night.
The scale of United's achievement on the domestic front alone is clear from the difficulties being faced by the reigning champions in other major European leagues. Lyon, dominant for so long in France, are seven points behind Marseille and Bordeaux with four games to play; Bayern Munich are three points behind Wolfsburg, and seven goals inferior on goal difference, with four to play in the German Bundesliga; and Real Madrid's mauling by Barcelona last weekend left them seven points behind with four to play, all but extinguishing their hopes of a hat-trick of Spanish titles.
The only one of the trio being given any chance of a late comeback is Bayern, who are priced at 2.75 for the Bundesliga compared with Wolfsburg at 1.60. Bayern's experience, and that of caretaker coach Jupp Heynckes, has got them through sticky situations in the past, and on initial viewing their title odds appeared a little on the generous side.
Yet, on closer inspection, Wolfsburg rate a good bet to hold on to their lead. They also have a coach with title-winning experience in Felix Magath and, as long as they hold their nerve, the respective fixture lists indicate that they could extend their lead over Bayern. The first test of nerve is likely to come today, with Bayern probable winners at struggling Cottbus and Wolfsburg facing a tricky trip to Stuttgart.
If Bayern drew level on points or closed the gap to one, the title betting would be much closer and it might be worth waiting to see if Wolfsburg's odds drift. If they do, Magath's team would be worth a bet, as their outstanding home form (14 wins and one draw from 15 games) might be enough to win them the title.
Today in the Bundesliga the best bet is Hoffenheim at home to Cologne. Hoffenheim are winless in 12 and might seem a strange selection, but still they have lost only two out of 16 this season against teams below them in the table, and at home they have won five out of eight in that category, so this is a good chance to start to turn their form around.
Going back to the Premier League, it is difficult to see United slipping up at home to City unless the derby factor has a big effect. City have been poor on the road this season, losing 10 out of 17 and keeping only one clean sheet, while United have scored in every home game and won 15 out of 17.
Fulham rate a good chance at home to Aston Villa, who have nothing to play for now that their place in the Europa League has been secured. There is a suspicion that Wigan have relaxed and settled for a mid-table finish, but their overall form gives them a good chance on the handicap at least against bottom club West Brom.
Tottenham could do well at Everton, where they have a good record, and Chelsea are the handicap pick against Arsenal, though for both teams the hangover from their Champions League exits is a difficult factor to weigh up.
Two home teams stand out in Spain. Almeria have won seven out of eight at home to teams below them and rate a good chance against Gijon, while Atletico Madrid look overpriced despite Espanyol's recent winning run.
In Serie A, the best bets on form are Inter and Fiorentina away to Chievo and Catania respectively, and Cagliari on the handicap at home to Roma, though it is getting to the stage of the season where it often pays to be wary of Italian form.
Fulham rate a good chance at home to Aston Villa, who have nothing to play for now
Number of defeats for Tottenham in 16 Premier League visits to Everton, with seven wins and seven draws: 2
Failures by Manchester United to do the derby double over neighbours City in seven seasons since 2000: 6
Hoffenheim, Fulham, Cagliari, Fiorentina, Inter Milan, Almeria, Hamburg, Atletico Madrid.
$200 Fulham (handicap, Sat).
Four winning bets out of seven.
Manchester City, Fulham and Bolton are the teams least likely to win when they are not leading at half-time - all three have won only three games from that position (from 21, 24 and 26 attempts respectively).