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Title race still on after United wobble
Mike Collett | March 23, 2009 20:33 IST
Manchester United [Images], who could have been 10 points clear of Liverpool if they had beaten them last weekend, could find themselves in second place in the table when the Premier League resumes in two weeks' time.
An astonishing weekend of upset results that saw United lose 2-0 at Fulham, Chelsea go down 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool crush Aston Villa 5-0 blew the title race wide open again with Manchester United's seemingly rock-solid grip on the championship trophy prised apart.
United, champions for the last two seasons and bidding for an 18th crown which would equal Liverpool's all-time record, are still favourites to triumph.
They lead the table with 65 points from their 29 matches -- one point more than Liverpool who have 64 and have played one more match. Chelsea are third on 61 points from 30 matches, with Arsenal [Images] fourth, a further six points behind.
But despite their position at the top and their renowned steeliness when the chips are down, United will be wary of buckling under the pressure being exerted by Liverpool -- as they did when they were chased down by Arsenal 11 seasons ago.
In 1997-98 Manchester United let slip a 13-point lead over Arsenal, who stormed to the title by a point and clinched the Double after beating Newcastle United in the FA Cup final.
Alex Ferguson, whose men are in the hunt for five trophies but who have now lost successive league games for the first time for nearly five years, seemed alarmed by their display at Fulham.
United, thrashed 4-1 by Liverpool at Anfield on March 14, were abject in the first half and had an afternoon to forget as Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney [Images] were both red carded.
"When you lose games in March and April it can cost you," the manager told Manchester United's TV channel MUTV.
"Fortunately we have a slender lead, but it is not a lot. The home game with Aston Villa is absolutely crucial."
Rooney, Scholes and Nemanja Vidic [Images], who was sent off in United's 4-1 defeat to Liverpool last week, will all be suspended when United resume the title race against Aston Villa on April 5.
Villa, who were in a Champions League [Images] spot for three months but have now slipped back to fifth, were crushed by a rampant Liverpool on Sunday where Steven Gerrard [Images] scored his first Premier League hat-trick, including two goals from penalties.
However, if Villa prevent United winning when they meet at Old Trafford after the international break and Liverpool beat Fulham at Craven Cottage on the same weekend, Liverpool will be top for the first time since mid-January.
While Ferguson looked concerned, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez [Images], while not exactly crowing, was pleased with his team's performance -- even though he said they could have done ever better.
"Don't get me wrong, we could have played better on the counter-attack, but I am really happy," he told reporters.
"We needed to do our job and wait for United to make mistakes and that is what happened. They are still in a much better position but we will keep pushing them. What do I think of United's wobble. I don't know. Ask Mr Ferguson."
Chelsea also wobbled by going down 1-0 to Spurs at White Hart Lane as temporary manager Guus Hiddink saw his team beaten for the first time in the Premier League after four straight wins since he took over from Luiz Felipe Scolari [Images].
Hiddink refused to concede the title race and said: "We won't give up, but if you are chasing you cannot afford to do what we did, especially with Manchester United losing. It is very disappointing. These are the moments when the players know they must strike. Liverpool and Chelsea cannot afford to drop a single point."
Neither for that matter can Manchester United as the title race moves into its final stages.