Devils hope to pile on pressure

NEW DEVIL: Manchester United are likely to give Darren Fletcher (left) his first team debut in the Premier League when they entertain Aston Villa today. The teenager impressed in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Basel on Wednesday.

LONDON: Manchester United are praying the hangover from Arsenal's gruelling Champions League campaign will give them the chance to pile on the pressure on the Gunners in the Premiership title race. 

Although Arsenal head for Blackburn today five points clear at the top of the table and have looked confident of retaining their domestic crown, they have been outshone by United in Europe. 

Alex Ferguson's men booked their place in the quarter-finals with two games to spare and, as a result of being knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal last month, have effectively been able to put their feet up for the last 10 days. 

Arsenal in contrast had to endure an exhausting Cup draw with Chelsea last Saturday, came within a whisker of a disastrous defeat by Roma in midweek and face the daunting task of travelling to Valencia next Wednesday for their fourth game in 12 days knowing that defeat could end their interest in the competition. 

Even if they become the first English side to win back-to-back league and Cup doubles, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger will be bitterly disappointed if they do not take what he regards as their rightful place in the last eight of Europe's premier competition. 

As a result, he could be tempted to rest some of his players, although he will be mindful that it was Blackburn who emerged victorious (2-1) when the two sides met at Highbury earlier this season. 

With Francis Jeffers and fit-again Freddie Ljungberg keen to get more first team action, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires are the most likely to be given the chance to save themselves for the Valencia showdown. 

England centre-back Sol Campbell, who missed the Roma match with an Achilles tendon problem, was rated by Wenger as “50-50” for the Blackburn trip. There are also minor doubts over Brazilian midfielder Edu and skipper Patrick Vieira, who injured his knee in the midweek clash. 

United have their own injury problems with Roy Keane, Quinton Fortune and Juan Veron all ruled out of Saturday's midday rendezvous with Aston Villa at Villa Park. Mikael Silvestre and Nicky Butt are both doubtful. 

The shortage of midfielders could tempt Alex Ferguson to hand 19-year-old Scot Darren Fletcher his Premiership debut after he impressed in the 1-1 Champions League draw with FC Basel. 

Ironically, Fletcher had been in line to make his first team debut against Villa in an end-of-season clash two years ago but was blocked from doing so because he was still a schoolboy. 

Two years of injury problems have hampered his progress since then but he confirmed on Wednesday why United's backroom staff place so much faith in the whippet-thin teenager. 

“He is still skin and bone really but he has very good ability and there is a lot of common sense about his play,” Ferguson said. 

Mick McCarthy's nine-match bid to rescue Sunderland from relegation begins with a home clash with Bolton, currently occupying the last survival spot but with only goal difference separating them from West Ham. 

The Hammers face a daunting trip to Everton, who have proved extremely difficult to beat at Goodison Park this season and are engaged in a battle for the fourth and final Champions League qualifying spot that is every bit as tight as both the relegation and title battles. 

With Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle looking set to occupy the top three positions, Everton, Chelsea, Liverpool and even Charlton are all in with a realistic chance of clinching the fourth spot. 

Charlton entertain Newcastle today while Liverpool visit Spurs and Chelsea travel to West Brom tomorrow. 

Birmingham travel to Manchester City in tomorrow's other match with French World Cup winning striker Christophe Dugarry still looking for his first goal since joining the Blues in the January transfer window. 

But Blues boss Steve Bruce insists Dugarry's all-round contribution has helped keep Birmingham six points clear of the relegation zone and is determined to make his move from Bordeaux permanent in the summer. 

“Mark Hughes was a great striker but he hardly ever got more than 15 goals a season in his career,” Bruce said. 

“I always knew that Christophe was not a natural goalscorer when he came here but I also knew that he could give us something else – and he has. 

“By that I mean his creativity, his strength in the air, the way he leads the line. The hardest thing is scoring a goal – but it's the same with having the imagination to score a goal and he gives us that. 

“I have been delighted with him over the past two months and when you see him on the training ground some of the stuff he produces is mind-blowing. 

“Like I've said, the first job I will do if we stay up is to make Christophe my priority and we'll do our utmost to keep him here. He's a top player and they don't come around very often.” – AFP  

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