Chelsea, Man United in league showdown

Saturday’s showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United could well decide who wins the English Premiership title. It could also be a rehearsal for the Champions League final.

United hold a three-point lead over the Blues in the league title race with two more matches to follow. Even if Chelsea win at Stamford Bridge, United will retain the lead because of a far better goal difference.
But a victory for Avram Grant’s team will set up a thrilling end to the season.

There’s a good chance that the two teams will then meet in Moscow on May 21 for the right to call themselves champions of Europe.

Chelsea held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Anfield in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday and Man United fought out a 0-0 draw with Barcelona in Spain on Wednesday. The second legs are next week and both Chelsea and United have home advantage.

“It is incredible to think what can be won and lost,” said Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, who made three top-quality saves against Liverpool. “It is an exciting time for everyone.”

Because of their superior goal difference—54 to Chelsea’s 36—United will effectively capture their second title in a row by winning at Stamford Bridge. But Alex Ferguson has the luxury of being able to rest some of his front-line stars to keep them fresh for next Tuesday’s game against Barcelona in the Champions League.

Central defender Nemanja Vidic, who has only just recovered from a knee injury, missed the game at Barcelona because of a stomach bug and Ferguson says he is doubtful for the match against Chelsea.

“Nemanja went 36 hours without eating,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think he’ll be ready for Saturday. “Before training [in Barcelona], he had very severe stomach pains, so we sent him off to a hospital only about a mile away.”

The United manager may be tempted to give leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo a break. But the Portuguese star missed a third-minute penalty at Camp Nou and will want to face the Blues on Saturday to get back into his scoring routine.

Ryan Giggs and Nani came on as late substitutes against Barcelona and may well start against Chelsea.

With three points to make up, Grant can’t afford to bench many of his stars even though his players have an extra day’s rest ahead of their Champions League match against Liverpool on Wednesday.

It’s likely that midfielder Frank Lampard won’t play after the death of his mother, Pat, from pneumonia on Thursday. Lampard missed league games against Wigan and Everton to be at his mother’s hospital bedside, although he played on Tuesday. Liverpool have sent a message of condolence.

Cech says he would like to see United make it to the European final and he expects a busy time at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

“United score the most goals in the league. They are an attacking threat,” Cech said. “You know there will be work to do, but it is great when you keep a clean sheet against such an attacking team.

“It would also be great to see them in Moscow, for many reasons. It is always an entertaining game and, in the final of the Champions League, with the passion of the English fans, it would be a great occasion.”

Third-place Arsenal don’t play until Monday and will be mathematically out of contention if United beat Chelsea. The Gunners visit last-place Derby, which is already sure of relegation.

Saturday’s other games are Birmingham vs Liverpool; Manchester City vs Fulham; Sunderland vs Middlesbrough; Tottenham vs Bolton; West Ham vs Newcastle; and Wigan vs Reading.

On Sunday, it’s Portsmouth vs Blackburn and Everton vs Aston Villa.

Next-to-last Fulham will be relegated if they lose at Man City and the three teams above, Birmingham, Reading and Bolton, all win.

League Championship leaders West Bromwich Albion can clinch promotion without kicking a ball on Saturday.

The Baggies don’t play until Monday, when they host Southampton, but are five points ahead of third-place Hull. If the Tigers fail to beat sixth-place Crystal Palace on Saturday, West Brom, who lost to Derby in the playoff final last season, will regain the Premier League spot they lost two years ago.

Stoke City, who last played in the top flight in 1985, also will go up on Saturday if they win at already relegated Colchester and Hull fail to beat Palace.—Sapa-AP

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