with Nick Pulford
A number of intriguing scenarios could still unfold in the last nine days of the English Premier League season, but in all probability the destiny of the title comes down to this: can Chelsea win at Liverpool tomorrow?
Both Chelsea and Manchester United should be able to count on winning their final home games next weekend, against Wigan and Stoke respectively, and that means almost everything hinges on the game at Anfield. If Chelsea win, they will have one foot over the finish line, but anything less will give United the chance to race past them.
Much was made of Chelsea's 7-0 home win over Stoke last weekend, in terms of increasing their goal difference superiority over United, but the only real significance was that it showed the leaders to be in great form going into tomorrow's crucial game. The title being decided on goal difference is now one of the least likely scenarios: assuming both Chelsea and United win their final home games, the only way goal difference can come into play is if Chelsea lose at Liverpool and United draw at Sunderland in tomorrow's later match.
The more likely scenario in the event of a Chelsea slip-up is that United win their final two games to clinch their fourth successive title, which is achievable against two bottom-half teams with nothing to play for.
Almost certainly, therefore, it is win or bust for Chelsea at Anfield. The mischievous believe winning will be far easier than it should be, because Liverpool would rather lose than give United the opportunity to secure the title that would put them ahead of Liverpool as the most successful club in the history of the top-flight championship.
The joke doing the rounds is that Rafa Benitez will put out a team of Scouse celebrities, from Cilla Black to Holly Johnson, against Chelsea. The punchline being that the only player on the club's books worthy of a place in this joke team is Lucas Leiva.
One obstacle for the conspiracy theorists is that Liverpool are not out of the reckoning for fourth place, especially if Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa take points off each other in their clashes this weekend and in midweek. Two wins might just sneak Liverpool into fourth place.
It is hard to believe that professional dignity and Liverpool's 'This is Anfield' pride will allow a Chelsea walkover. Liverpool have lost only two out of 18 at home in the Premier League this season, despite their problems, and another blot on that record would not look good.
Liverpool have been this way once before, in the 1994-95 season, when they hosted Blackburn knowing that if they did not win they would deny United the title. As it turned out, Liverpool won their game and still Blackburn were crowned champions because of United's inability to beat West Ham.
Assuming Liverpool are on their game, the biggest question mark against Chelsea is their away form against the Premier League's better teams, with just three wins out of eight against top-half teams. Against the teams going for the prized European places (the top seven), Chelsea have won two out of five, though the victories came in the two most important games - 2-1 at Manchester United and 3-0 at Arsenal. What Chelsea need is the sort of performance that saw them win 3-1 at Liverpool in last season's Champions League quarter-final first leg, but that was their only win in their last six visits to Anfield.
Putting aside any concern over Liverpool's commitment, the hosts rate good value on the Handicap HAD, at least given the artificial shortening of Chelsea's odds as the conspiracy theories gathered pace.
The next question is whether United will be able to take advantage of any Chelsea slip-up by winning at Sunderland. In this match more credence can be given to the view that Sunderland have nothing to play for, in terms of league issues, and here, too, there is a conspiracy theory, with former United defender Steve Bruce in charge of Sunderland and happy to do them a favour.
Again, on form, it should not be easy for United because Sunderland have a good home record, having lost only to Chelsea and Aston Villa, who rank in the top three away teams along with United. That suggests United will need to be on their top game to win and they don't rate good value, as the odds are skewed too heavily by Sunderland's 'nothing to play for' position.
The fixture list has ensured that the battle for fourth will go to the wire, with sixth-placed Manchester City finishing their home campaign with crunch games against the two teams immediately above them. First they play Aston Villa tonight and then Tottenham on Wednesday, knowing that two wins will take them back up to fourth before their final game away to West Ham next weekend.
Villa look the tougher of the two opponents as their away record is much better than Tottenham's. Martin O'Neill's side have come back into form in recent weeks, with four wins and a draw from their last five games, and they look a decent bet on the Handicap HAD.
The odds are not too enticing on the Premier League programme, though once again Fulham's home form looks underestimated against West Ham.
Win for Chelsea in their last five away to top-half opposition: 1
Home, sweet home
Home league games without defeat for Sunderland: 9
High and mighty
Defeats for Aston Villa in 17 against top-half teams, the Premier League's lowest: 3
Shortlist: Everton, Millwall, Getafe, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Valenciennes
Top five bets
1 Millwall away win Six away wins in 10 this year and will be going all out for another
2 Getafe on handicap Good chance against the third-worst home team in Spain
3 Leicester home win Will be looking to keep up the momentum with fifth straight win
4 Fulham home win Can make it five home wins in seven against the teams below them
5 Valenciennes home win Have a habit of raising their game against the better teams