Chelsea took a decisive step on Wednesday night in their quest for Champions League qualification, beating Fulham 3-0 to go third in the Premier League.
However, with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur breathing down their necks, the race is still very much on as we turn into the final strait of the 2012-13 campaign. Just a point separates the Blues from the Gunners, with Spurs a further two points back.
But the club from West London could take a significant psychological advantage this weekend if they can emerge victorious from arguably their most important test in the run home.
On paper, Sunday’s trip to Liverpool might not appear to be the toughest task on Chelsea’s to-do list, with clashes against Manchester United and Tottenham also looming. The Reds lie seventh, on the fringe of the battle for European football, and are a shadow of the team that came so close to breaking its league hoodoo in 2008-09.
However, while the capital club triumphed when the two teams met in the FA Cup final last year, the league spoils have gone to the Scouse side in recent times with four Liverpool wins and a draw from their last five meetings – including a 4-1 hiding at Anfield last term that effectively ended the Pensioners’ push for a top-four finish.
Chelsea will desperately want to reverse that trend this weekend. For while Arsenal will be expected to deal with Fulham, a Blues win in the North West could narrow the field should Spurs – who are sweating on the fitness of their superstar winger, Gareth Bale – succumb to second-placed Manchester City.
And there will be more than just breaking ducks on Rafa Benitez’s mind this weekend, as the interim manager revisits a club where he will forever be remembered as the orchestrator of that astounding come-from-behind victory in the 2005 Champions League final.
Much of the media and the wider public’s attention will centre on the Spaniard – and another, in one-time Kop darling Fernando Torres. But the real story of the day will be whether or not the visitors return from Merseyside holding the third rung of the ladder – and if so, how tightly.