When Chelsea host Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday evening, it will be a meeting of the third- and fifth-placed teams in the Premier League table, a pair of also-rans in a second straight English season dominated by Manchester's dueling giants.
But in the absence of a compelling title race—even a title race at all—this London derby might be the biggest Premier League match of the season. Even without the reward of silverware at stake, this match should feature all the intensity and commitment of a title-decider, and it certainly will have the storylines to match.
For the hosts, there is a demanding owner, an unpopular interim manager, the potential return of a legendary leader and an exhausted squad juggling the multiple responsibilities of an interminable season.
For the visitors, there is a first-year manager well-positioned for cold revenge, a superstar with possible foreign ambitions and an unproven squad dealing with the weight of past failures.
For both, there is the common thread of finishing in the top four.
"Wednesday will be a final for both teams," interim Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez said (via Yahoo! Sports).
Benitez is not quite right, but his use of hyperbole is warranted. After Wednesday, both teams will have two matches left in their quest to finish in the top four and thus qualify for the lucrative UEFA Champions League next season.
Chelsea, led by the midfield genius of Juan Mata, currently occupy third place and the final automatic qualification spot for the Champions League group stage.The Blues defeated champions Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday to climb back above Arsenal and are favorites to finish ahead of their two London rivals.
Tottenham, meanwhile, trail fourth-placed Arsenal by two points with a game in hand, and finishing fourth ensures a spot in that competition's final qualifying round.
According to figures reported in 2012 by The Guardian, Arsenal made just under €30 million for their participation in the 2010-11 Champions League, a run that ended in the Round of 16. Manchester United reached the final and earned €53 million.
Such are the potential financial rewards at stake Wednesday night.
"We are in the driving seat and hopefully we can get three points against," added Benitez. "If we win we’ll be in the Champions League, but obviously Tottenham are a good team. It’s still crucial for us, but it’s even more important to them. I think there will be a great atmosphere in Stamford Bridge."
Benitez, 53, became Chelsea's interim manager in November following the dismissal of the popular Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian, himself an interim manager at the time, had led the Blues to Champions League and FA Cup titles last spring but fell out of favor with owner Roman Abramovich early this season.
Never welcomed by the fans, Benitez has confirmed he will leave the club at the end of the season. Despite his unpopularity, he has guided the Blues to within touching distance of a spot in the Champions League, as well as a spot in this season's UEFA Europa League final.
Chelsea's participation in both, along with the FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FA Community Shield and FIFA Club World Cup, has made for a long, exhausting season. Wednesday's match will be the Blues' 66th competitive fixture of the campaign.
Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho, who led Chelsea to Premier League titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06, is widely expected to return to Stamford Bridge this summer. And as a report from Spanish newspaper Marca hints, his decision will become much easier if Chelsea beat Spurs on Wednesday and inch closer to Champions League qualification.
Coincidentally, a Chelsea win could also send Tottenham Hotspur's best player in the opposite direction. Gareth Bale, a 23-year-old Welsh midfielder who has been named PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year, has been linked heavily with a summer move to Real Madrid.
Scorer of 20 Premier League goals this season, Bale has been Tottenham's talisman, scoring both in bunches and at crucial times. For an example, one needs to look only to the past weekend. With Spurs seemingly heading for a scoreless draw against Southampton, Bale scored an 86th-minute winner to keep his team in the hunt for the top four.
Without Champions League football at Tottenham next season, Bale might be tempted to move on. Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas, however, said that will not be the case.
"The information that I have from the club, which was mistakenly written about last week, is that (Bale) is here to remain, independent of the objectives of Champions League qualification being achieved or not," Villas-Boas said (via Metro).
Tottenham narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification last season despite finishing fourth. Chelsea claimed England's final berth as winners of the competition, while Spurs finished one point behind Arsenal in third.
Spurs also finished directly behind Arsenal in 2010-11 and 2009-10, though they qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in the latter. This season, behind Bale's breakthrough performances, Tottenham are hoping for a reversal of fortunes.
"If we win all our games, we qualify fourth, so it's in our hands," said Bale (via Sky Sports). "We will be concentrating on every game looking to play our best football and getting maximum points. If we do that there's nothing anyone else can do about it."
Your prediction for Wednesday night?
As a final bit of spice, Villas-Boas will be facing his former club with a high-stakes opportunity for both rehabilitation and redemption. Hired and fired by Abramovich in the space of eight months, the 35-year-old Portuguese, a former assistant of Mourinho's, can at once build his own reputation, help his current team take the next step and hurt his former employer's bottom line.
"It's not very, very special. It's a club that I have gone past," Villas-Boas said (via Sky Sports). "I have good and bad memories like everybody else, but it's a pity it didn't finish as I would have liked."
Wednesday's match will be special, and no matter what Villas-Boas says, his back story is part of the reason for that. But it's not the only reason, and with the title race long decided, this is as close as the league will come to a winner-take-all showdown this season.