Arsenal's suitors start saving for summer sales
The north London club's on-field prospects, its off-field image, its place among the giants of the game, all this hinges on a decision leading shareholder Stan Kroenke must make by 12 April: match, sell or stick.
That day, a Monday, is 60 days after US car-bumper king Shahid Khan made a $750m offer for 100% of the St Louis Rams. Kroenke owns 40% of the NFL franchise and has until then to respond. He can match the offer, accept it or hold on to his minority stake.
Option one is unlikely as US rules prevent him from owning an NFL team in St Louis while he also owns NBA and NHL teams in Denver, which leaves options two and three - a £200m choice with enormous implications in north London.
Kroenke (centre) is not known for big statements of intent but he will have to make one very soon
If Kroenke chooses to sell, he will breathe life into the sleeping beauty of British sports news, The Arsenal Ownership Mystery - a titanic takeover battle with Cold War connotations and a great English institution as the prize.
Three years after the rapid reactions of Arsenal's charmingly aristocratic board put this tale to bed, it is starting to stir. And this time there appears to be little the likes of Sir Chips Keswick and Lord Harris of Peckham can do about it.
It is tempting to portray Arsenal as a reminder of the way we were - the marble halls and all that - when in truth it has been to the fore of the Premier League's embrace of globalisation. But the Gunners have maintained a link with the owners of the past, a link other top clubs have severed, a link that is likely to break in the coming fight.
Kroenke, who is connected to the Wal-Mart dynasty by marriage, first appeared on Arsenal's radar when he bought a 9.9% stake from ITV in 2007. He has been accumulating steadily ever since, particularly in the last year when he has more than doubled his holding via regular dips into London's PLUS market, a specialist exchange for smaller companies.
After Monday's £60k purchase of seven more shares, the 62-year-old is now just 10 short of 30%, the point at which he must make an offer for the rest. It's here that a Rams windfall could come in very useful, particularly as another 32% of Arsenal equity is believed to be his for the asking (for the knockdown price of £170m).
Those shares, almost 20,000 of them, belong to Danny Fiszman and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, the third and fourth largest shareholders at the Emirates.
Fiszman sold 5,000 shares to Kroenke for £42.5m a year ago and, after a frosty start, now enjoys a good relationship with the American on Arsenal's board.
Since that sale, however, the Swiss-based tax exile has reportedly been diagnosed with cancer. Fiszman is fiercely protective of his privacy so nobody outside his immediate circle really knows how he is faring. The early signs are said to be encouraging but it remains unclear if he is fit enough for the rigours of a football boardroom.
And he should know. Bracewell-Smith, former vice-chairman David Dein and ex-managing director Keith Edelman are among those to have been out-manoeuvred by Fiszman's combination of cunning and ruthlessness.
You can probably add Usmanov to that list, too, but they don't call him the "hard man" of Russian business for nothing.
The 56-year-old and his London-based business partner Farhad Moshiri entered the fray four months after Kroenke, when they paid Dein £75m for his 14.58% stake. A month later they had added another 8%, and by early 2008 the keen fencer was Arsenal's biggest shareholder, with just over 24%.
Unfortunately for him, this move put everybody's guards up. Much-publicised legal difficulties in the Soviet Union and an aggressive business style seemed to spook the fans and directors.
The latter group were the bigger problem as, under Fizsman's guidance, they entered into a pact, or "lockdown" agreement, to not sell shares to the Uzbek raider or give him a place on the board. This had the knock-on effect of boosting Kroenke's appeal and his shareholding - suddenly his money wasn't so bad after all.
Deprived of what would normally be a rightful place on the board and unable to acquire shares from fellow directors thanks to the lockdown, Usmanov's Red & White Holding vehicle came to a halt and chances of a restart seemed unlikely as other parts of his portfolio struggled in the global downturn.
But he didn't go away. In fact, he kept visiting his two luxury boxes at the Emirates and, as his wealth started to recover last year, he also picked up more shares (albeit at prices higher than the £8,500 Kroenke was typically paying) to take his holding to 26.25%.
More significantly, he also tried to build bridges with the Arsenal support by offering to underwrite a £150m share offering last summer. Sensing the frustration of the fans at the club's apparent inability to compete financially with Chelsea, the Manchester clubs and Spain's big two, Usmanov's timing was smart.
The board, perhaps fearing anything that might boost Usmanov's popularity, blocked the idea and restated its faith in a business model based on the Emirates' massive match-day revenues, Premier League broadcasting deals, the much-anticipated Highbury redevelopment dividend and Arsene Wenger's managerial genius.
And as models go, it's pretty much the best there is among Arsenal's "peer group" in English football: conservative, sensible and stable. But it could be better and Kroenke and Usmanov (and probably Wenger too) know it.
In this blog I wanted to set the scene for what could be as big a story as any in English football this year (outside the twin campaigns for the 2010 and 2018 World Cups). To do this I have had to go backwards.
After Kroenke shows his hand in St Louis - and right now everybody is just guessing - I will take the story forward with a closer look at the squad and the business these two rivals are sizing up.
Soon after 12 April there is another key date - 1 May. That is when Kroenke's potential offer price for the remaining 70% of Arsenal drops from £10,500 a share to £8,500, a "saving" of £87m.
Of course, there are no guarantees that Arsenal's disparate shareholders - everybody from the aristocrats to the diamond dealers to the retired taxi-drivers - will sell to either suitor, but money does tend to talk.
If Kroenke takes Khan's cash, expect that chat to get louder. And if Usmanov tops up his war chest with a London share debut for his Metalloinvest piggy bank , the noise will become deafening.