Sir Alex Ferguson has declared Manchester United's Barclays Premier League showdown with Arsenal tomorrow as his club's “biggest game of the season”.
Although United had business of their own to attend to on Wednesday as they sealed a Carling Cup final berth at the expense of Manchester City, it did not escape Ferguson's notice that Chelsea swept back to the Premier League summit with their own win over Birmingham, and still have a match in hand.
So, with the Red Devils' margin for error reducing all the time, Ferguson knows the importance of beating the only other side he believes can deprive United of a record fourth consecutive title.
“Looking at the way the league is shaping up, this game on Sunday is the biggest of the season for us,” said Ferguson.
“If Chelsea win their game in hand they go four points ahead of us. That is the catch-up part.
“But Sunday's game has great relevance because both sides have a genuine chance of winning the league.”
United had never won at the Emirates Stadium until last season's Champions League semi-final. That one-sided encounter changed the run, since then Arsenal have suffered successive heavy home defeats to Chelsea, the latter occasion in November providing the trigger for a number of the Gunners' critics to write them off completely.
“It is amazing how this league has changed,” said Ferguson.
“As I have said all along, the team that is most consistent will win the league now.
“Arsenal's current form has been very good. It has brought them back into the picture. That is why this is such a massive game for us.”
United will be without Rio Ferdinand, who starts a four-match ban after a Football Association disciplinary panel decided his appeal against a violent conduct charge for his attack on Hull's Craig Fagan last week was “frivolous”.
Ferdinand is still deciding whether to lodge an appeal to try and get the additional match that was tagged on to the automatic three-game suspension rescinded.
That will be of no assistance on Sunday, although at least Ferguson does have Nemanja Vidic available after the Serbian defender recovered from a nerve problem that has kept him on the sidelines throughout the first few weeks of 2010.
Wayne Rooney is United's obvious goalscoring threat, having scored five times in a week to take his tally for the season to 21.
He might be asked to put in another energetic performance as a lone front-man too given it promises to be one of the few occasions in a season when the Red Devils do not dominate possession and chances.
As with Manchester City, there is a new competitive element to the contests with Arsenal that is bound to bring an added edge to the stands as well.
Ferguson has opted to call for some of the vile chanting often directed towards Arsene Wenger to
be curtailed, insisting the supporters who cheered his side to victory in midweek could do the same this weekend if they concentrate on the more positive aspects of their own team.
Chelsea will watch with interest, Carlo Ancelotti no doubt hoping for a draw, which would offer his own side the chance to establish a pretty strong grip on a championship race Ferguson reasonably assumes is now between three contenders.
“It seems that way, although there have been so many indifferent results for the top sides that you cannot be 100% certain,” he said.
What this season has done is revive a history that goes back 20 years, when a thrilling last day title win for Arsenal at Liverpool was followed 12 months later by Ferguson winning his first trophy for the Old Trafford outfit.
The rivalry has endured ever since.
“These games with Arsenal are historic,” he said.
“Since I came down here, apart from the early years before George Graham won his first title, it was Arsenal and United who were mostly competing for the trophies.
“Without doubt Chelsea have become a prominent team in that respect too and it has been ourselves and Chelsea challenging for the league in the last few years.
“But you can never dismiss Arsenal because their history will always guarantee a challenge.”