MANCHESTER, February 5 – Sir Alex Ferguson's dream of an unprecedented fourth consecutive Premier League title collides with David James's determination to play at this year's World Cup when Manchester United take on Portsmouth here on Saturday.
Three points against the side currently propping up the Premier League will send United back to the top of the table and put Chelsea under pressure ahead of their clash with Arsenal 24 hours later.
For Portsmouth, the stakes are even higher with the financially stricken club desperate for points as the clock ticks down on their battle for survival in the top flight.
Time is also running out for James, who has waived his right to a contract extension at Portsmouth to ease the financial pressure on the club and ensure he plays as many games as possible in the run-up to the World Cup.
James, who was linked with a move to Stoke City in the transfer window, was entitled to a new 12-month extension at Fratton Park if he played 25 games this season.
But with 14 matchses under his belt already, the 39-year-old has agreed to have the provision removed from his contract for fear it could result in him being left out of matches to avoid triggering the extension.
James has slipped behind West Ham’s Robert Green in the England pecking order and knows regular matches and clean sheets at places like Old Trafford are the only way he is going to regain his former position as the national team’s number one.
Explaining the move on his contract, James said: "It was definitely an issue and given that we would have been outside the transfer window, then sitting on the bench or not even sitting on the bench would not have done me any good in trying to help Portsmouth stay up or trying to get in the England squad for the World Cup.
"The Premier League rulings allow us to do contract renegotiations outside of the transfer window and we will get it sorted out because I don’t want the club worrying about it and I don’t want to be worrying about it myself."
Portsmouth’s financial woes were underlined last month when Asmir Begovic, the Bosnian goalkeeper who had been keeping James out of the team, and defender Younes Kaboul were sold to assuage creditors, against the wishes of manager Avram Grant.
The former Chelsea and Israel boss came close to quitting but has opted to stay at Fratton Park. "As long as we have a chance, we have to fight," he said.
"It’s very hard times off the pitch but I’m very proud of the players. I think if everything was a little bit more calm the results would be better."
On paper is should be a comfortable win for United, who stunned Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium in their last outing.
Wayne Rooney orchestrated that win and has been irresistible of late. But with United facing a midweek trip to Aston Villa, the England forward could be rested on Saturday.
At 68, Ferguson’s appetite for the game shows no sign of diminishing, but he revealed this week that he almost gave up his career in football after becoming disillusioned during his playing days.
While struggling to make his mark at St Johnstone in the 1960s, Ferguson came close to emigrating to Canada before some harsh words from his mother prompted a change of heart.
"I was part-time and in a reserve game against Airdrie I broke my eyebrow, cheekbone and nose and was out for months," he recalled. "They put this massive plaster cast on my face.
"After I came back from the injury I played three reserve games. We lost 8-1, 7-0 and 9-2. I said ‘that’s it – I am finished’. I took out papers to emigrate to Canada.
"On the Friday, my brother’s girlfriend phoned up my manager at St Johnstone and told him I had the flu. But when I arrived home from a night at the swimming baths with my pals, my mother tore into me.
"She said, ‘I’ve had a telegram from your manager – get down to the telephone booth and call him’. The manager said: ‘Report to the Bath Hotel tomorrow, you’re playing against Rangers’.
"I scored a hat trick and became the first player to do so against Rangers at Ibrox – it changed my life. I became a full-time footballer in the summer and never looked back."