United eye title as basement battle intensifies

Manchester United will take a giant stride towards retaining their Premier League title if they beat Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park on Saturday.

United’s lead at the top was cut to two points by Chelsea after the Blues won 1-0 away to Everton on Thursday.

But an away win against a Rovers side managed by Mark Hughes, the former United striker, would see Sir Alex Ferguson’s Champions League semifinalists go five points clear with three games left in the season.

If the contest for the title is now a two-horse race, the battle to avoid the drop is less clear-cut.

Basement club Derby have long been doomed but there are several other sides that could yet the fill the two remaining relegation places.

And second-bottom Fulham will hope history repeats itself when they face Champions League semifinalists Liverpool, who continue to have to cope with the ongoing row between co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat at Fulham this time last season angered then-Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock, whose side went on to be relegated on the last day of the season.

Rafael Benitez used the fixture to give regulars a rest ahead of more important Champions League games and Bolton manager Gary Megson has already voiced fears the Spaniard will do the same at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

Fulham bolstered their survival hopes with a 2-0 win over Reading, themselves now just three points above the drop zone.

Reading manager Steve Coppell did his best not to be distracted by Benitez’s possible team selections ahead of the Royals’ game against Arsenal.

“There is nothing I can do about it so why should I be concerned? You trust in the integrity of the league and I see no reason to doubt that.”

Fulham defender Aaron Hughes said: “Last season Liverpool was the game that kept Fulham up. We know it’s going to be very tough because Liverpool are a very good side.

“But the win at the weekend gives us good confidence and we will see where we can go tomorrow [Saturday].”

Wigan took a giant step towards top-flight survival after Emile Heskey’s injury-time goal secured a 1-1 draw away to Chelsea on Monday.

But they are not yet absolutely safe ahead of Saturday’s game against Derby and manager Steve Bruce hopes the fans, who haven’t exactly been flocking to the JJB this season, will be enticed back for Saturday’s game at home to Tottenham.

“It’s up to me to try to produce a team that the people of Wigan will come out and support in force.”

Birmingham are two points above the bottom three heading into Sunday’s second city derby against Aston Villa.

The match sees Birmingham boss Alex McLeish, once manager of Rangers, again facing Villa manager Martin O’Neill, previously in charge of Celtic, in a derby match.

“It is a tough game for us but I also say it is the occasion where people can become heroes overnight,” said McLeish.

Newcastle and Sunderland head into Sunday’s north-east derby with both sides looking increasingly likely to stay up.

Kevin Keegan had to wait nine matches before overseeing a victory in his second spell as Newcastle manager but wins over Fulham, Tottenham and Reading, as well as away draws at Birmingham and Portsmouth, have seen the Magpies climb up the table.

“The confidence was low, but the confidence now is where you would like it to be,” said Keegan of a match that sees Sunderland striker Michael Chopra up against his hometown club.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, like Keegan a former England manager, insisted on Thursday he was not about to be sacked by frustrated owner Thaksin Shinawatra.

A win for the Swede at home to high-flying FA Cup finalists Portsmouth on Sunday would not do Eriksson’s cause any harm.—AFP

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