After months of competition, a season of exhausting slog, the title race could finally come to an end this weekend. The finish line is in sight, with frontrunners Leicester ready to take a hearty glug from the isotonic sports drink of victory. If results go the right way, they could be champions of the Premier League by Sunday afternoon.
The race to the Champions League spots is still being run, however, as is the race to escape relegation. And fuck it, let's include the race to finish mid-table, too. There are races everywhere, races intersecting other races, races within races within races. Nobody would be able to make any sense of all the races, were it not for this Premier League preview.
CHAMPIONS AT OLD TRAFFORD?
Other than Manchester United, the last team to win the league at Old Trafford were the magnificent Arsenal side of 2001/02. The teamsheet that day featured such legends as Sol Campbell, Freddie Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira.
Their achievement could be matched this weekend by a team that includes Robert Huth, Marc Albrighton and former Huddersfield Town loanee Danny Drinkwater. If that comparison puts the improbability of Leicester's title win into context, it also serves as the ultimate compliment. With a squad that is so much more than the sum of its parts, the Foxes are on the brink of pulling off the least likely triumph in the history of the Premier League – if not English football as a whole.
In many ways, they are the rightful heirs to Arsenal's turn-of-the-millennium title winners. Though they have nowhere near as much individual quality, Leicester have perfected a winning formula based on neat passing, incisive counter attacks and lethal precision in front of goal. They need three points to establish an insurmountable lead at the top of the table, and clinch a first-ever top-flight title. If they do manage to win it at Old Trafford, it will be a fitting end to a dreamlike campaign.
THE FOURTH-PLACE FINAL
While disgruntled Arsenal fans have become accustomed to ranting about the club's 'fourth-place trophy' in recent years, the team are now in considerable danger of losing out on even that. After the complete collapse of their title tilt, the Gunners are a mere five points ahead of Manchester United in the fourth and final Champions League spot – and Louis van Gaal's side have a game in hand.
If United can close the gap this weekend, there's a genuine possibility that Arsenal will throw away their final chance of silverware this season. Despite the fact that the fourth-place trophy is completely imaginary – and made up with the sole purpose of taking the piss out of them – Arsène Wenger's side are still threatening to blow their lead and lose it to a major rival.
Now wouldn't that be typical? Fetch the protest banner, lads.
FEAR THE WALKING DEAD
A cold wind blows through the Premier League at the moment. Occasionally, a groan can be heard. The sound of shambolic shuffling echoes around the Liberty Stadium, Vicarage Road and Goodison Park. This is because each ground has been lost to the living – and delivered into the clutches of the walking dead.
Of course, by the walking dead we mean Francesco Guidolin, Quique Sanchez Flores and Roberto Martinez. With all three managers tipped to be out of work at the end of the season, they look increasingly lifeless with each passing press conference. While Guidolin and Flores have done admirable jobs at Swansea and Watford respectively, results have tapered off in recent months and their managerial reigns look like coming to a natural end. Meanwhile, Everton have experienced a season of decline under Martinez – one plagued by semi-zombified defending throughout.
We're unlikely to see dismissals made before the end of the campaign but, no matter what their results this weekend, the end looks nigh. That leaves Guidolin, Flores and Martinez in a state of animated expiration, not quite living and yet not definitively dead.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
While Newcastle and Sunderland looked like they might go down with a whimper a few weeks ago, both are now fighting ferociously to preserve their top-flight status. Newcastle have managed unlikely draws with Man City and Liverpool recently, while the Black Cats could have snatched a win against Arsenal last weekend had they been a bit more clinical in front of goal. They face Crystal Palace and Stoke respectively on Saturday and – with struggling Norwich travelling to the Emirates later in the afternoon – they'll be absolutely desperate for wins.
As inglorious as the scrap at the bottom of the table might be, there's nothing more watchable right now.
Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich have been clinging to the Premier League by their fingernails all season, but only now are they actually contemplating the horror of what lies beneath. They have glanced down into the murky, Stygian depths of the Championship – the infinite darkness of the Football League – and they are now locked in a life-or-death struggle, each club attempting to clamber to safety over the bodies of their fallen foes.
In their primal, feral, almost animalistic fear of the drop, the relegation-threatened teams will do anything to survive. They have glimpsed the faint outline of a Tuesday night away game at Ewood Park – if that's not enough to motivate a struggling team, nothing is.
THE DEADEST OF RUBBERS
With the majority of teams now guaranteed a mid-table finish, this time of year is always likely to produce a few dead rubbers. Watford vs. Aston Villa is practically meaningless, as is Everton vs. Bournemouth. They are almost profound in their unimportance, remarkable for being utterly null.
No matter how many goals they produce, no matter how many highlights, one or the other of them is guaranteed to be last on Match of the Day. They are a stark reminder of the fundamental futility of existence – and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better.