If last weekend proves to be a vital step in breathing life back into an English Premier League race that appeared to be drifting to a predictable and anticlimactic conclusion, it will have everything to do with the personality traits of the primary combatants.
For the first time this season, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool are all in territory that is friendly and familiar as the final weeks of an intriguing campaign approach.
United, despite its embarrassing 4-1 thumping at the hands of Liverpool on Saturday (its heaviest home defeat in 17 years), loves nothing more than to be at the head of the pack. The seven-point lead that seemed to wrap up the title is now down to four, yet Sir Alex Ferguson's side is one of soccer's finest frontrunners and will still feel mightily optimistic about the chances of a third straight EPL crown.
However, Liverpool – finally – is approaching a comfort zone of its own. Rafa Benitez and his players seemed ill at ease during their stint at the top of the table and all the talk of a league triumph nearly 20 years in waiting added a heavy burden of pressure. Now that they feel they are the hunter, not the hunted, the Reds have little to lose and can operate with greater freedom.
The Anfield club's response over the past week has been spectacular. Preceding Saturday's dominant display at Old Trafford was a 4-0 hammering of Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.
Don't forget about Chelsea, either. For so long this season, the West London club was gripped by a paralyzing crisis of confidence under Luiz Felipe Scolari, leading to a series of inept displays that cost the Brazilian coach his job.
Now, though, the Blues are reinvigorated under Guus Hiddink, who has put his team back into a position of comfort. Hiddink, the mercurial player's coach, understands the egos and personalities in the Stamford Bridge locker room far better than Scolari ever did, and the turnaround in results has been striking.
Just a few weeks ago, Chelsea looked to be written off. Now it remains in strong contention both at home and in Europe.
The race for honors is well and truly back on, and the kind of thrilling crescendo to the season that fans have waited so long for could finally be upon us.
Weekend First XI
1. Get him an Advil
Major League Soccer heads into its 14th and potentially most difficult season this week – and commissioner Don Garber has a few headaches with which to deal. The protracted David Beckham saga has done nothing to enhance the credibility of the league and Garber must find a way to boost interest and television ratings in an increasingly volatile economic climate.
2. Get him a beer
It takes someone special to be selected ahead of Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry at the age of 18. But Bojan Krkic repaid the faith of Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola by scoring both goals as the Spanish La Liga leaders breezed past Almeria 2-0 on Sunday.
3. Get him some earplugs
Aston Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor had another day to forget as Villa lost 2-1 at home to Tottenham and dented its hopes of reaching next season's Champions League. Agbonlahor looked set to emerge as one of the EPL's brightest stars when he struck nine goals in the early part of the campaign, but he has scored only twice since mid-December and was booed by his own fans when he came on as substitute on Sunday.
4. Four corners
• Can you believe this guy was playing pro soccer in 1982?
• Does Franck Ribery need to leave Bayern Munich to revitalize his career?
• Is Didier Drogba clever, or a cheat – or both?
• What is the point of Indonesia applying to host the World Cup?
5. Catch a flight to … Amsterdam. Check out the coffee shops (for the coffee, of course) and catch Ajax's UEFA Cup second leg against Marseille on Wednesday night. The Dutch side is 2-1 down from the first leg but must be favored to reach the quarterfinals.
6. A round of applause for …
Filippo Inzaghi. The Italian striker reached yet another milestone as his two goals in AC Milan's 5-1 trouncing of Siena took him past 300 for his career.
7. Get them a Kleenex
Glasgow Rangers. They lost to hated rivals Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish League Cup final, 2-0 in extra time.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Michael Orozco. The United States Olympic team defender is rumored to be keen to leave Mexican Primera Division side San Luis and sign with Major League Soccer.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Javier Morales. The Argentinean playmaker has signed a long-term deal with Real Salt Lake, but more than one club in his homeland is keen to see him return to South America.
10. Get excited about …
Nordin Amrabat. The 21-year-old Dutch winger is making waves at PSV Eindhoven and is catching the attention of some of Europe's leading clubs.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Consuelo Matos, the stunning wife of Fiorentina and Romania striker Adrian Mutu.
- English Premier League
- Manchester United
- Major League Soccer