Fergie: It's a two-horse race
Sir Alex Ferguson has ruled Manchester City out of the title race, claiming it is now a straight shootout between Manchester United and Arsenal.
With Chelsea languishing in fifth place and Tottenham not yet possessing the consistency to be Premier League challengers, third-placed City, eight points off United's lead, appear to be the only realistic threat to either United or Arsenal.
But given United also have a game in hand, albeit a potentially tough one at Chelsea on Tuesday, it would be an incredile feat for City to haul themselves into contention and United boss Ferguson insisted it was now a two-horse race.
"Either Arsenal or ourselves will win it,'' declared Ferguson. "Normally two teams break away. At particular moments in the season, it looks good as has been the case for the last few years. But all of a sudden, as you come towards to the end, there are always two teams. That is the way it is looking at the moment.''
Ferguson has refuted comments by Chelsea skipper John Terry that United could crumble under the pressure, but United need to be careful not too look ahead to Tuesday's blockbuster before giving due diligence to Saturday's trip to Wigan, a potential banana skin given United's exertions in Marseille in the Champions League in midweek.
Even without the distractions of other key matches, United's away form has been a concern for Ferguson. They have dropped just two points at Old Trafford but three away wins is a meagre total for a club of the Red Devils' ambition.
During the campaign's early stages, victory was tossed away at Fulham and Everton by the concession of late goals, whilst at Wolves earlier this month, a 29-match unbeaten run disappeared against the league's bottom club. As visits to Wigan and Chelsea are followed by the usual epic with Liverpool at Anfield, Ferguson is acutely aware that if United still only have three away wins to their name by that point, they will be in trouble.
"Our away form has not been as good as it normally is,'' admitted Ferguson. "I suppose that is the test given we have these three away games now. You could say we have thrown points away at Everton and Fulham and that our record at Chelsea over the last few years has been poor. We have to do something about that. But tomorrow is the most important one. We need to concentrate on that and get the result we want.''
Of the seven senior players who missed Wednesday's drab draw in Marseille, only two, Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs, are in contention to return this weekend. For Owen the news is particularly bright given the early feeling on a groin injury that forced him out of training a fortnight ago was that it could wreck his season and, effectively, his United career.
Central defensive duo Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are pencilled in to return at Anfield, meaning in-form Chris Smalling will keep his place in the Stamford Bridge hot-house after another outstanding display in Marseille. Indeed, there are some who feel the 20-year-old would be unlucky to lose his place when Ferdinand does eventually return. Ferguson does not share that view.
"Chris has done fantastically. But he is only 20,'' said the United boss. "With Rio's experience, if he is fit and is ready for Liverpool, I would definitely play him. I am sure Chris would understand that.''