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Apr 22, 2009

The fat lady isn't quite ready

Monday saw Sammy Lee say Liverpool needed maximum points from their six remaining games if they were to deny Manchester United a third-straight Premier League title. But even after Tuesday's astonishing 4-4 draw with Arsenal there is still a sense that there is more to come from this season's fascinating title run-in.

In any normal season, United would be feeling bullish about their chances with two games in hand over their nearest and fiercest rivals, but such has been their uneven performances over the last two months that United can take nothing for granted.

Based on United's recent showings it is tough to see them taking maximum points from their remaining seven games - they don't need to, of course, particularly if Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot again.

Not only must United face Arsenal, who would love to take points of their erstwhile enemies, but they must also avoid a couple of potential banana skins chief amongst them a trip to Middlesbrough and a venue where United have struggled in the past.

United may have notched wins against Gareth Southgate's struggling side in the league and Carling Cup already this season, but last term there was a nervy 2-2 draw at the Riverside, the season before saw United draw away to Boro in both the league and FA Cup and in the 2005/06 season the Teesiders spanked Sir Alex Ferguson's side 4-1.

With Boro fighting for their lives and United's nerves likely to be jangling when they meet on May 2, the chances of a shock at the Riverside are not as far fetched as you might think.

The first of United's games in hands comes against Portsmouth at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, on paper it should be a routine win but to get the expected result the club must first pick itself up after the disappointment of defeat in the FA Cup semi-final and overcome some inevitable anxiety.

United's other remaining game in hand is away to Wigan Athletic on May 13 (unlucky for some) and should also prove routine for United, but there is plenty of football to be played before then, not least two Champions League semi-final meetings with Arsenal.

It is ironic that Arsenal having been written off months ago as a lightweight irrelevance, a team short on character if not talent, could yet play such a key role in the outcome of the season.

Almost exactly 20 years since Michael Thomas denied the Liverpool an emotional title win at Anfield the Gunners sank a dagger into the Reds' current title bid. But Arsene Wenger's side did not up their game simply to scupper Liverpool and will take just as much pleasure in unsettling United when they meet, as they must three times in the next month.

If Arsenal beat United in the Champions League and if the game on May 16 is still vital to the title race, imagine the pressure and demons that will be swimming around the United dressing room ahead of the Gunners' visit to Old Trafford for the penultimate game of the season.

Given the amount of football still to be played and with defeats to Fulham, Liverpool and Everton still fresh in the mind it would be a superhuman feat of self-confidence for United's players to feel that the title is now theirs to throwaway.

That said United are obviously in the box seat, particularly as Liverpool, shorn of talisman Steven Gerrard, are over-reliant on Fernando Torres and have shown in their last two games a troubling new inability to defend and just how costly individual mistakes can prove; see Pepe Reina's near post gaffe in the Champions League against Chelsea and Javier Mascherano's aberration for Andrey Arshavin's first goal at Anfield.

There will almost certainly be more twists and turns in the title race and to use a phrase made famous some years ago by Ferguson, for both the United boss and Rafa Benitez it is now undeniably squeaky bum time.

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