The final international break of the season has come and gone. (The USMNT isn't terrible anymore! Hooray!) That means we are in the home stretch of the club soccer season, with only two glorious months left to decide winners and losers in the English Premier League and other leagues around Europe, starting with the matches this weekend.
But there is so much more to determine than just the winner. Which clubs will qualify for Europe's grandest competition, the Champions League? And which clubs will suffer the ignominy of being dropped to a lower league? Who will rise to the occasion and who will slink down when the spotlight shines?
To prepare you for the nearly nonstop action between now and the final whistle in May, here's what you need to know about all the contests within the contest that is the Premier League. Let's go.
The title race
There has been, and will be, no doubt that this is Chelsea's season in the Premier League. Antonio Conte did wonders with this squad, rebuilding it by using the talent Jose Mourinho squandered last season as the bricks, and his own tactical genius as the mortar. The Blues have a stranglehold on first, ten points clear of Tottenham in second.
Of course, Chelsea has not mathematically clinched the title yet, and strange things have been known to happen in the Premier League (5,000-to-1). But it's difficult to imagine a scenario where the Blues don't lift the title. Before the break, Conte said he believes his team needs 21 points -- seven wins -- to be safe. Chelsea has 10 matches remaining, including contests with Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton and Southampton.
I still think the Blues take the title comfortably. Not only would they need a partial collapse, another team would have to rise to the occasion with a fantastic final run, and, frankly, no team has shown the capacity to do that. But with that difficult slate of matches, the race could be closer and more exciting than I expect.
The top four
The most interesting narrative of the season has been the fate of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, and that storyline will continue to dominate the final two months of the season. The Gunners are in sixth and six points off the top four and Champions League qualification after losing five of their past six Premier League matches. Their dismal spring has put the legendary manager on the brink of an exit from North London.
We have no way of knowing whether or not the club intends to keep Wenger after this season, but that won't stop speculation from running rampant that he either finishes top four or gets the sack. Or the speculation that suggests Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil's decisions to remain at Arsenal or not depends on the finish. But if the speculation ends up being true, these next two months could be some of the most important in club history.
The Gunners will have a chance to right their season, a bit at least, this Sunday against Manchester City. City hold its place at the moment with five points over fifth place Manchester United and 12 points behind Chelsea. The Sky Blues' fate seems fairly sealed right now. Despite a surprising and disappointing exit from the Champions League, City has held strong in the league since January. It would need to suffer a serious dip in form to miss the top four.
Honestly, that isn't enough for City, though. Pep Guardiola was brought to Manchester to win the Champions League, and at the very least compete for the Premier League title until the death. Neither will happen, likely leaving him trophy-less for the first time in his managerial career, if he can't manage to take the FA Cup. He won't be fired. It's his first season and he'll get that grace period. But a bad first year is sure to make trigger fingers itchy in Manchester ahead of his second season. He can't win the league, but if he wants to keep the fans off his back this summer, he still needs to dominate down the stretch.
Tottenham is in the best position to make hay of a potential Chelsea screwup, 10 points off the lead in second, and are also a strong bet to make its second Champions League in as many seasons. It'll be a fantastic accomplishment for Mauricio Pochettino and his team.
But Spurs also held second down the stretch last season. Poor form and even worse results ended with them losing second to bitter rivals Arsenal. Pochettino should be more cognizant of the threat of late season collapse this season and coach his team to prevent it. There's still major matches with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United remaining. If Spurs defend like they've done most of this year, though -- tied for best in the league with 21 goals allowed -- it should be no issue to stay close to the top and well clear of Arenal.
Liverpool is trying to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2014. The Reds are in fourth with four points on Manchester United at the moment. So while they'll be favored to play in Europe's top competition next season, they still have thin margins and many important matches ahead.
The Reds don't have any matches against the league's elite down the stretch, but those matches were never their issues to begin with. Liverpool loses to the minnows and mid-tablers of EPL far too often, which is the main reason they're so far from the top. So even if the ground forward doesn't seem treacherous, it is. But if they take the attack to those teams and have learned from their mistakes earlier this season, there's no reason they can't have a strong finish.
Some Liverpool fans may see top four as a disappointing finish considering the club looked like surefire title contenders in August and September. But it's important to remember that this is Jurgen Klopp's first full season at Anfield, and a return to the UCL could do wonders in the transfer market. Players such as Marco Reus and Mario Gotze have played for Klopp before and would probably like to play for him again ... if it comes with Champions League football. That would be a fantastic step forward for Liverpool.
Which brings us to the final team fighting for the top four, Manchester United. Mourinho was brought to United to win trophies and revitalize the club after the departure of the droll Louis van Gaal. He's accomplished half of that, winning the League Cup and making the final four of the FA Cup, but he still coaches one of the most boring teams in club soccer. If not for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the magic he can weave, one has little reason to watch United.
Because of that boring style from Mourinho, it seems unlikely that United can work its way into the top four. Mourinho loves practicality and a good draw, something United has had plenty of this year, as well as something that doesn't help you climb the table. United is also still competing in the Europa League, another chance for a trophy by Mourinho. But the fatigue from those matches will carry over to the league, and I don't think United will have enough in the tank to mount a viable top four challenge.
The relegation fight
The other interesting battle to end the season is in the drop zone, where teams will fight it out to determine who is dropped to the Championship and who gets stay in the Premier League with the big boys.
One club you'll want to keep a watchful eye on is Leicester City. The Foxes won the league in astounding fashion last year, but suffered an amazing drop-off since, falling into the relegation fight. They fired their manager, Claudio Ranieri, earlier in the spring and caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare has them going in the right direction again. Now they're in 15th, six points ahead of the first team to be relegated. Oh yeah, and they're the final English club standing in the Champions League.
But while advancing as far as it has in the Champions League is a tremendous accomplishment, it could harm Leicester City. As amazing as its victory over Sevilla was, Atletico Madrid is a horse of a different color. Chances are Leicester is done in Europe after this round, but it'll still give it all to win those matches. If the Foxes lose those, and their form drops in the league, they could have a close encounter with the drop in the final weeks.
Leicester's chances of dropping are low, but there are four clubs in particular who will fight it out to stay up, with only one winner: Swansea (17), Hull (18), Middlesbrough (19), and Sunderland (20). Every remaining match for these teams is crucial. Points are at a premium so any single victory or draw will provide an enormous booth. With no drama at the top of the table, and little in the top four, the race at the bottom is the one to watch in the final months.
Cy Brown writes about soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.