LONDON: It is indicative of how radically Chelsea have transformed the English football landscape this season that Manchester United have been reduced to relying on a favour from Manchester City.
Sir Alex Ferguson and his squad continue to insist that all is not lost in their bid to chip away at Chelsea’s commanding lead at the top of the Premiership.
But even the most red-eyed of optimists would accept that what little hope remains will disappear if Jose Mourinho’s men are not tripped up soon.
Which is where City, visitors to Stamford Bridge tomorrow, come into the picture.
Kevin Keegan’s side have the distinction of being the only English side to have beaten Chelsea since Mourinho took charge in the summer.
But results since that 1-0 win at Maine Road back in November have done little to suggest that City are capable of pulling off a similar upset at Stamford Bridge tomorrow.
A bruising 1-0 win at Blackburn in midweek left Chelsea just nine wins and one draw away from securing their first title in 50 years, as well as extending their run of clean-sheet victories in the league to eight matches.
The Londoners’ run-in includes potentially tricky trips to Everton and Bolton as well as a trip to Old Trafford that is currently scheduled for April 16.
But it remains difficult to envisage them cracking at this late stage, or to understand why Mourinho insists all his players have to just concentrate on continuing to do what they have being doing with quiet efficiency all season.
“Manchester United are second now, a few days ago it was Arsenal but it’s not our problem because at the moment they have a big fight for second place,” the Portuguese manager said.
“They have to fight each other to see who can be more comfortable there. We need to win nine matches and draw one to be sure of winning the league and I don’t care about Manchester United, I don’t care about Arsenal, I just care about us. We are just concentrating on what we have to do.”
In the wake of Tuesday’s 4-2 comeback win over Arsenal, there is no doubting the confidence among United’s players about their ability to put together a winning run between now and the end of the season.
“Winning at Highbury for us was like when a club in Spain wins at Real Madrid or Barcelona – we proved we are still in the race,” said Gabriel Heinze, United’s Argentinian defender.
On paper, Birmingham, the visitors to Old Trafford today, should not overly trouble United in their current form. But Ferguson will know from his vast Champions League experience to be wary of Birmingham’s latest acquisition, Walter Pandiani.
The Uruguayan striker, signed on loan from Deportivo La Coruna minutes before the transfer deadline on Monday night, marked his debut with a goal in the 2-1 defeat of Southampton on Wednesday night.
And the striker nicknamed ‘The Rifle’ knows there will be no better way to leave a lasting impression on English football than by shooting a hole in United’s title hopes in the Theatre of Dreams.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger conceded the title to Chelsea in the wake of Wednesday’s defeat by Manchester United, but that does not mean the Gunners have nothing left to play for.
With the burden of financing their new stadium to consider, Arsenal can ill afford to miss out on automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League, a privilege granted only to the top two in the league.
Wenger also has this season’s tournament to consider as he seeks to restore his side’s confidence in the run-up to the second round clash with Bayern Munich later this month.
The Frenchman is under pressure to restore goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to his starting line-up this weekend at the expense of the hapless Manuel Almunia, who was at fault on at least one of United’s goals in midweek. – AFP