United and Chelsea prepare for title duel
Chelsea will be one win away from completing the most remarkable comeback in Premier League history when they face Manchester United in a high-stakes title decider at Old Trafford on Sunday.
A wildly erratic campaign which included the club's worst run of league form in more than a decade looked to have scuppered Chelsea's chances of defending their title as recently as 1 March, when they trailed United by 15 points. But with relentless efficiency, and a dollop of good fortune, Chelsea have stitched together a remarkable run of results that has seen them take 25 points out of a possible 27 from their last nine matches.
United - who this week clinched their place in the final of the UEFA Champions League with victory over Schalke 04 - have by contrast suffered an attack of nerves during the title run-in. A goalless draw at Newcastle was followed by a scratchy 1-0 win over Everton before a lacklustre 1-0 loss to Arsenal last week, a result that Sir Alex Ferguson blamed on "emotional tiredness" after a midweek match in Europe.
Defeat at the Emirates has left United just three points ahead of Chelsea with an identical goal difference. If Chelsea win on Sunday, they will top the table on goal difference with two matches to play. A win for United however will open up what should be an unassailable six-point lead, with Ferguson's team facing straightforward fixtures against relegation-threatened Blackburn and Blackpool in their remaining games.
Despite their faltering league form, Ferguson is buoyed by the fact that his team were able to romp into the Champions League final in midweek with a 4-1 victory over Schalke with what was effectively a second string XI. That means that United's frontline players such as Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will be fresh and raring to go against Chelsea.
Giggs said United were unflustered by the possibility of allowing Chelsea into the title race after having held such a commanding lead in early March. "We have not thought about losing a big lead," said Giggs. "We have had some tough games where we have dropped points.
"Newcastle away. Arsenal away. In the Newcastle game we played well. There is probably only Arsenal in the last couple of months where we have not turned up. Generally our form is good. We are confident we can beat any team at Old Trafford."
Giggs also believes United will receive a confidence boost after reaching a third Champions League final in four years this week. "Of course reaching the Champions League final will give us a boost," said Giggs. "Hopefully that will help us. Like any game we will go out to win it. It will be tough because Chelsea are flying at the moment but, at home, we are confident of getting that win."
Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien meanwhile underscored the club's determination to edge clear of United. "We have hit a good run of form lately and have managed to haul ourselves back into the title race," he said on Chelsea's website.
"We have to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford this weekend to ensure we are in the driving seat and I can assure you we are up for it. The team is playing well and I have no doubt we will give it everything ..."
Elsewhere this weekend, Manchester City can take an iron grip on the fourth Champions League qualifying spot with victory at Everton. Tottenham, who slipped to sixth after last week's controversial defeat at Chelsea, must beat Blackpool at home to revive their faint hopes of overhauling Roberto Mancini's side.
At the other end of the table bottom club West Ham face a crucial basement battle with Blackburn at Upton Park where only three points will do as they bid to avoid the drop.