Champions-elect United have history in sights
LONDON (AFP) –
With Manchester City having conceded defeat in the Premier League title race, runaway leaders Manchester United are switching their focus to the pursuit of records and the preservation of freshness in their squad.
United visit Sunderland on Saturday, when victory would provisionally take them a massive 18 points clear of second-place City, who host Newcastle United later in the day and whose manager, Roberto Mancini, accepts United can no longer be caught.
Eighteen points is the record margin by which United won the title from Arsenal in 2000, while manager Alex Ferguson has spoken of his desire to eclipse Chelsea’s unprecedented haul of 95 points from the 2004-05 campaign.
United are also out to gain revenge for the exuberant celebrations of Sunderland’s fans after Ferguson’s men lost out on the title to City at the Stadium of Light on the final day of last season.
However, thoughts of both vengeance and the history books must be weighed against the need to retain focus for Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final replay at Chelsea.
With such a short turnover between the games, and in the immediate aftermath of the international break, Ferguson has given a strong hint that he will make changes for the visit of Martin O’Neill’s side.
“Every coach is praying that their players come back fit (from international duty),” said Ferguson.
“I have to make sure I have some freshness in the team because we also have Chelsea on Monday lunchtime.
“It is a big ask for our squad and something we need to concentrate on because I need to make sure I pick the right teams.”
The resumption of the league programme sees City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Everton resume their five-way battle for the three Champions League places below United.
Chelsea, four points off City in third place, visit Southampton on Saturday, while fourth-place Spurs are at Swansea City and fifth-place Arsenal host second-bottom Reading.
Everton, two points behind Arsenal in sixth, tackle Stoke City.
Spurs’ momentum has begun to ebb in recent weeks, following consecutive defeats by Liverpool and Fulham, and Arsenal are now only four points behind their local rivals with a game in hand.
Arsene Wenger’s men, however, will once again be without Jack Wilshere, who has an ankle injury, while the injury-prone Abou Diaby has been ruled out for up to nine months with knee ligament damage.
Arsenal are also likely to encounter a Reading side invigorated by the mid-week appointment of manager Nigel Adkins, who has eight games to bridge the seven-point gap that currently separates the club from safety.
Third-bottom Wigan Athletic preserved the three-point gap that separates them from the teams above the drop zone with a last-gasp 2-1 win at home to Newcastle last time out.
Roberto Martinez’s side, who also have a game in hand, host Norwich City on Saturday and victory will lift them out of the relegation zone at the expense of Aston Villa, who do not welcome Liverpool to Villa Park until Sunday.
The writing appears to be on the wall for Queens Park Rangers, who are level on points with Reading but occupy the last place in the table due to an inferior number of goals scored.
However, ahead of Monday’s derby with London rivals Fulham, manager Harry Redknapp has urged his players to draw inspiration from the very best as they seek to change their fate.
“The best teams work the hardest,” said Redknapp.
“People think the best teams just play football. It’s a fallacy. The best team in the world is Barcelona and they are the hardest-working team.”
Saturday (1500GMT unless otherwise stated):
Arsenal v Reading, Everton v Stoke City (1730GMT), Manchester City v Newcastle United, Southampton v Chelsea, Sunderland v Manchester United (1245GMT), Swansea City v Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United v West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic v Norwich City
Aston Villa v Liverpool
Fulham v Queens Park Rangers