United shuffle pack as Gerrard's return bolsters Liverpool

Manchester United descend on relegation-threatened Middlesbrough this weekend knowing another three points will leave them on the brink of a third consecutive Premier League title.

But United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that he cannot afford to unleash all his big guns at the Riverside given that his squad will have only two days to recover before defending a 1-0 advantage in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal against Arsenal.

With a three-point advantage over Liverpool and a game in hand, United have a significant margin for error in the league.

But with testing fixtures to come—next weekend’s Manchester derby and Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford on May 16—Ferguson will demand that no mercy is shown to Gareth Southgate’s strugglers.

Liverpool will be bolstered by the return of captain Steven Gerrard from injury as they seek to exploit any slip-up by United at the expense of relegation-threatened Newcastle, who travel to Anfield on Sunday with goals, points and confidence all in short supply.

The Magpies have claimed just two points in the four matches that Alan Shearer—brought in belatedly as an anti-relegation fire-fighter—has been in charge while Michael Owen will return to his former club without a goal since January 10.

Newcastle would have been in a much better position had Owen taken the best chance of the match in Monday’s goalless draw with Portsmouth.

As it is, they stand three points behind Hull, the side currently occupying the last survival spot, although their superior goal difference gives them an edge that could make all the difference on the final day of the season.

Hull entertain Manchester United that day and will hope that either the title race is done and dusted by then or that they have put themselves above the relegation water-line.

Phil Brown’s side have been in freefall since December but they will believe they can claim what would be only their second league win of 2009 against an Aston Villa side that has given up any hope of a top four finish after a run of 12 games without a win.

Villa expect to have England striker Gabriel Agbonlahor back for Monday night’s match at Villa Park.

Villa’s collapse has ensured Arsenal are virtually assured of fourth place and have the luxury of fielding a weakened side at Portsmouth to preserve energy levels for Champions League duty next week.

Manager Arsene Wenger has insisted he will not be doing that as the Gunners seek to extend their 20-match unbeaten run in the league.

But Pompey will nonetheless be hopeful of coming up against opponents with their minds elsewhere as they look for the win that could guarantee their top flight status.

Stoke and Bolton also have the opportunity to make themselves—virtually if not mathematically—safe with wins, respectively, at home to West Ham and away to Wigan.

Blackburn can also effectively secure their place among the elite although they arguably have a tougher task against a Manchester City side that has been strong on home soil all season.

Third-placed Chelsea face Fulham in a west London derby on Saturday, four days before their own Champions League semi-final second leg, against Barcelona.

Fulham are on track to clinch a place in next season’s Europa Cup, the successor to the Uefa Cup, and Roy Hodgson admits his thoughts have already turned to the expansion and strengthening of his squad that will be required to cope with the additional fixtures a European campaign will entail.

“If do we make Europe it will put a strain on the squad,” Hodgson admitted this week. “Luckily we’ve made ourselves a slightly more attractive proposition for new players with the work we’ve done this season.”—Sapa-AFP


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