Two teams, three games, two trophies. The mathematics has come down to this. Chelsea and Manchester United are about to embark on an epic mini-series to decide the destiny of two of the most coveted trophies in world sport: the Champions League and the English Premier League. Next Sunday, United play Wigan and Chelsea Bolton in the final matches of the domestic season. The permutations could detain the entire University of Cambridge maths department for a year. Though there is a simple thread at its heart: should United win, the title is red. Such is the gap in goal difference between the two clubs, not even a defence as flaky as Bolton's could concede sufficient goals for Chelsea to do it in that eventuality.
Then, ten days later, the pair meet again in Moscow to decide the Champions League. One of the teams could, by the late evening of 21st May, be cradling a double. Or both could be left empty handed. The stakes are that high. Higher even than last season when the same suspects fought for the double of English title and FA Cup and end up splitting the difference, taking home one trophy each.
But the really extraordinary thing about this modern day carve up, is that back in January nobody would have bet a single penny, euro or any old bit of currency they happened to find stuffed down the back of the sofa on the chances of it happening. Back then, if any English team was going to emerge to dominate all competitions, it appeared to be Arsenal. They were streaks ahead of the rest domestically, and, after smashing Slavia Prague 7-1 appeared to be equipped to take control of Europe too. Chelsea, on the other hand, were in the midst of their post-Jose Mourinho hangover and looked jaded, uneasy, unlikely. Crippled by injuries to Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard, they had none of the solidity, the assurance of old. But gradually, slowly they regrouped. Michael Ballack began to earn his massive wages, Nicholas Anelka was a shrewd January investment and Didier Drogba returned from the African Cup of Nations with his scoring boots restored. As Arsenal slipped and faded, the blues were there, first in their rear view mirror, then scorching past into the distance. Chelsea's march back to form and contention has been perfectly timed.
United, meanwhile, have always been there, in touching distance of a trophy that recent history suggests has been made for them. Blessed with a squad as populous as China, they have also been relatively lucky with injuries (Louis Saha, the balsa-wood man apart). Nobody, though, can have been as surprised as them to discover that it was not Arsenal or Liverpool with whom they would be disputing the end-of-year honours, but, as last season Chelsea. These are two teams who must be growing sick of the sight of each other.
We have just under a week to wait until the outcome is certain. There is not long left for feverish speculation, so let's make the most of it while we can... Surely the league is United's. Or do you think Wigan have it in them to do the blues a favour? As for the Champions League final, who do you think has the better big match temperament? And if it all, in this most tense and unpredictable of seasons, came down to penalties, who would crack first?