Manchester United's woes are well chronicled, so that comes as no surprise. And as critical as today's fixture is - for the rivalry, history and what it means to supporters - the real hurdle for United to overcome is on Wednesday night, when Olympiacos show up along with their 2-0 first-leg lead.
Because, frankly, nobody expects United to make the top four of the Premier League this season. It's mathematically possible, of course, but there are too many points to make up and too little time. The Champions League, on the other hand, isn't just about money and exposure, although that obviously matters to the Glazers and their beancounters. Nobody expects United to win it, but, at the very least, it's about having another shot at taking a major scalp, or, at least going down with some glory.
David Moyes would never say it, but the odds are he'd take a defeat today in exchange for advancing to the European quarter-final. That's United's current reality. Something else the manager would be unlikely to admit is that Robin van Persie's public support was probably not something he needed right now.
The Dutch striker talked about how happy he is with his "team-mates and manager" and how much he is "learning new things" under Moyes. But then he added that he'd be "delighted" to extend his current deal at Old Trafford, which expires in June 2016. Not exactly what Moyes needed to hear, because he had no real choice but to respond. And what was he going to say? Why, that he expected the club to give him a new deal and open negotiations soon.
It doesn't take a mindreader to figure out what Moyes would have said if only he could: that Van Persie really shouldn't be opening his mouth at this time. That there isn't a long line of clubs queuing up for his signature anyway. That a new deal would necessarily mean more money (because that's how football works) and United just gave Wayne Rooney a monster deal which means Van Persie will expect at least the same (around £300,000 a week). That Van Persie turns 31 this summer and a new contract would leave United on the hook for nearly £60 million right through to the eve of his 35th birthday. And that inking such a contract before the summer rebuilding job would make no sense whatsoever.
Of course, having received such a public vote of confidence from a guy who was supposedly unhappy (even though anyone re-reading Van Persie's original quotes post-Olympiacos would realise this dispute was a media creation), Moyes couldn't appear ungrateful. So he said what he had to say. And perhaps hoped the story would go away as quickly as it came up. A win today and qualification on Wednesday will do that trick for him.
Take away what happened before and since 2009 and there has been an uncanny parallel between Tottenham and Arsenal, who square off today in the North London derby. Arsenal have finished third or fourth in each of the past four seasons and are likely to do the same this year. Spurs have finished fourth or fifth in that time-frame and also look destined to do the same again. Both have reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League on one occasion; neither have won it. Both have been praised for their attacking football while being criticised for a supposed "soft underbelly". And both have proven year after year to be profitable clubs for their owners.
There are, of course, obvious differences. Spurs have had three managers in that time frame, while Arsenal have been all about Arsene Wenger. And while the latter have had spells where they've looked like potential champions, the former have not.
If you were cynical about this, you would assess these two clubs in the same way. You would conclude there is a reason why they hit a glass ceiling. The clubs that have finished above them, with the exception of Manchester United (outliers in every way, from the Sir Alex Ferguson factor to the huge annual profits) have been willing to spend big and take on losses. That applies to Chelsea and Manchester City and to Liverpool, who will likely end the season higher up the table.
It's a simplistic reading, but there is more than a grain of truth to it. Best practice and patient growth only takes you so far. And we've seen that whether you emphasise stability (Wenger) or are willing to make bold changes (Harry Redknapp to Andre Villas-Boas to Tim Sherwood) the last mile is always the toughest.
Arsenal won't change for the foreseeable future, so the focus shifts on Tottenham. A week ago, Sherwood questioned his players' "guts". On Thursday they were beaten at home by Benfica in the Europa League and he got into a touchline alter-cation with his opposite number Jorge Jesus. Ordinarily, not a big deal, but when a manager has been on a bad run and is surrounded by rumours that he's just a placeholder ... well, you can see the pressure mounting.
Sherwood has called on Daniel Levy, the Spurs chief executive and part-owner, to make himself heard. On that point, he's right. Spurs need a plan and they need to stick to it. It may not involve Sherwood, but Levy ought to give some kind of signal of where he wants the club to be and how he plans to get there.
SO West Brom have sacked Nicolas Anelka, just hours after he posted on Twitter that he was quitting. A statement on their website said the club consider the conduct of Nicolas Anelka on December 28 (the day of his quenelle gesture) to be gross misconduct. As a result they've given him 14 days' notice and are terminating his contract.
So, it's gross misconduct now but wasn't on December 28 to the point that they kept playing him until the FA commission banned him? Can't they make up their own minds as to whether it was or wasn't? Or were they simply "protecting their asset" when, post-quenelle, they played him in four consecutive Premier League games?
Opinions may differ among some as to whether the quenelle is anti-Semitic (or a form of gross misconduct). But nothing has changed - other than the FA ban - between January, when they were happy to play him, and now. A bit of consistency from West Brom wouldn't have been amiss.