LONDON - This has not been a classic Premier League season but the consolation for neutrals was supposed to be an end to the Big Four's stranglehold and at least a couple of heroic survival stories from the newcomers.
With over two thirds of the season gone, a more familiar climax is looming and buoyed by midweek wins in the Champions League, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal can all strengthen their claims for top four places this weekend.
Manchester United face Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup final on Sunday and Liverpool, who have not quite given up hope of catching them, have a chance to close to within four points when they play at Middlesbrough on Saturday.
They will certainly be in good heart after seeing off Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, although Fernando Torres will be a doubt after he came off with an ankle injury.
"He twisted his ankle in the first half and we were waiting but we could see that he wasn't fully fit and it would be a risk for the next games," coach Rafa Benitez told reporters in Madrid.
Chelsea were also 1-0 winners at home to Juventus on Wednesday and they will be chasing a third victory from three under new coach Guus Hiddink when they host Wigan Athletic, also on Saturday.
With apologies to injury-ravaged Everton, fourth-placed Aston Villa are the one remaining hope for a shake-up in the established order.
Arsenal, in fifth, trail Villa by six points but after a 1-0 win over Roma in the Champions League, and with players returning from injury, Arsene Wenger's team should be confident of staying in the hunt when they host Fulham on Saturday.
Villa also have a comfortable looking game at home to Stoke on Sunday.
Stoke are one of the three promoted clubs from last year and, perched one place above the relegation zone, their position is part of the other side of the season's story.
West Bromwich Albion are bottom, while the third promoted side Hull City are in freefall, their early-season form a distant, if pleasant, memory.
A glance at the fixture list shows the Stoke match is one Villa need to win.
After facing Stoke they take on Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton in quick succession, a sequence that will test their Champions League credentials to the limit.comments