United juggle priorities, Benitez hopes for change
LONDON (AFP) –
Manchester United must weigh the prospect of a 15-point Premier League lead against the importance of next week’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid when they entertain Norwich City on Saturday.
United go into the weekend with a 12-point advantage in the league and with second-place Manchester City not in action until a trip to Aston Villa on Monday, they can strike another blow in the title race by defeating Norwich.
However, with such a commanding points cushion beneath them, the priority is likely to be Tuesday’s encounter with Madrid, which United will approach in a strong position following a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
Alex Ferguson’s team selection for the Norwich game is likely to reflect the importance of the European tie and the United manager is expected to make several changes to his starting XI.
But with Robin van Persie sidelined by the hip injury he sustained in last weekend’s 2-0 win at Queens Park Rangers, Wayne Rooney looks likely to be handed a starting berth in attack.
Whether he starts on the pitch or on the bench, Ryan Giggs stands to make his 1,000th appearance in senior football after taking his career tally to 999 games at Loftus Road last weekend.
“Ryan is very professional and is such an example for the young players,” said United captain Nemanja Vidic.
“They see how you have to treat yourself and educate yourself in football to be a great player. Of course he has the quality and ability as well.
“He is a great example of how to be professional and to play at the top for so long. We have quite a few players like that. Rio (Ferdinand) is the same. He is a committed professional, the same as Paul Scholes.”
With the title race seemingly a foregone conclusion, the keenly contested battle to secure Champions League qualification can expect to garner an increasing share of the headlines.
City’s 2-0 defeat of Chelsea on Sunday gave them five points’ breathing space in second place, while the Blues now find themselves in fourth place after being leapfrogged by in-form Tottenham Hotspur.
Fifth-place Arsenal, who visit derby rivals Tottenham on Sunday, now trail Chelsea by only two points, while Everton are five points further back in sixth.
Chelsea welcome West Bromwich Albion to Stamford Bridge on Saturday, when attention is sure to focus on home manager Rafael Benitez after he criticised the club’s fans on Wednesday for their continued protests against him.
With Chelsea having picked up just 11 points from a possible 24 in the league, winger Victor Moses says his side cannot afford to take their eye off the ball against a West Brom team chasing a third consecutive win.
“We’ve got an important game coming up on Saturday,” said the Nigerian.
“We’re looking forward to it but it’s not going to be an easy game, so we need to make sure we get three points.”
Everton will also hope to make ground on the teams above them when they host struggling Reading, who slipped to second from bottom in the table after a chastening 3-0 defeat at home to Wigan Athletic last weekend.
Wigan’s win took them out of the relegation zone at Villa’s expense and ahead of Saturday’s game with Liverpool, captain Gary Caldwell has urged the club’s supporters to re-create the atmosphere that helped them escape the drop in 2012.
“The atmosphere the fans created last season was incredible,” he said.
“I’ve got no doubt that if the fans can help to create a similar atmosphere in these final games, then we’ll be able to get the results we need.”
QPR’s hopes of avoiding relegation are fading fast, with just 11 games remaining for them to bridge the seven-point gap that separates them from safety.
Harry Redknapp’s side visit Southampton, who were left three points above the bottom three following a 4-2 loss at Newcastle United last weekend.
Saturday (1500GMT unless otherwise stated):
Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion, Everton v Reading, Manchester United v Norwich City, Southampton v Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City v West Ham United, Sunderland v Fulham, Swansea City v Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic v Liverpool (1730GMT)
Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal
Aston Villa v Manchester City