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First, some perspective. Chelsea are seven points clear of Manchester United with six games remaining. They have dropped just two points at Stamford Bridge all season and if they win their three remaining home games – the last of which, tantalisingly, is against United – they will be champions.
The talk of the title race being alive again feels like wishful thinking – partly from those who want a close finish and partly from the increasing numbers who have come to dislike Chelsea.
Amid the hysteria, Rio Ferdinand, perversely, has emerged as the voice of reason. He acknowledged that for United to think of anything other than maintaining second place ahead of Liverpool would be “silly”, for, with Chelsea facing a fading West Ham and United at home to Arsenal, the gap could easily be 10 points again by Sunday evening. For all the recent friction between Arsenal and Chelsea, Arsène Wenger will hardly be minded to do the old enemy, Sir Alex Ferguson, any favours.
And yet, after eight successive league victories, the glint is back in Ferguson’s eye, and after the last of them, against Bolton last week, he declared that Chelsea were back in his sights. In the last month, United have gained 11 points while Chelsea have been beset by accusations of gamesmanship and rumours of behind-the-scenes intrigue.
Ferguson, of course, is the master of such situations. Kevin Keegan’s “I would love it” rant as Newcastle blew a 12-point lead in 1996 remains his most spectacular success, and while a similar implosion from Jose Mourinho seems unlikely, it is hard not to see Ferguson’s recent comments about diving as an attempt to ratchet up the psychological pressure – if not on Chelsea, then at least on the referees who must determine which of Didier Drogba’s tumbles are self-induced.
While Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo remain at the club, and particularly in the build-up to a fixture his side won last season thanks to an exaggerated plunge from Wayne Rooney, Ferguson cannot expect people seriously to believe that he is outraged by such nefariousness.
Looking beyond May, Sunday’s game at Old Trafford should also provide insight into the merits of two sides whose form over the past month has hinted at real opposition to the Chelsea hegemony next season.
Impressive as the statistic is, United’s eight wins may not be quite the achievement it at first seems, for four of the defeated clubs were in the bottom six, and none were in the top six. The increased fluency of United of late has stemmed largely from the form of Ryan Giggs, operating in a central midfield role alongside John O’Shea, but doubts linger about whether he is forceful enough to operate in the position against top-class opposition. Significantly, at Bolton, he was despatched back to the left wing, with Darren Fletcher returning to form an unglamorous, if solid, central platform.
Arsenal’s recent sparkle, similarly, has yet to be tested against the physicality that has upset them in the past. Such has been the success of Ferguson’s aggressive approach, in fact, that Arsenal have not beaten United in the league in four years.
Allowed to play, Arsenal play like no others, but even Juventus, who might have been expected to provide a robust challenge, failed to disrupt their rhythm in the Champions League. That was in part down to the sheer panache of Cesc Fabregas but there was also a sense of fatigue and flatness about Emerson, Patrick Vieira and Giuliano Giannichedda. United will offer no such respite and will be a far more stringent test.
Pressure, too, could be an issue for while there is a slightly incredulous hilarity about the European outings, the league could yet undermine Arsenal’s season. Finishing fifth, out of the Champions League spots, would be financially and psychologically damaging ahead of the move to the new stadium. As midfielder Alexander Hleb said: “There is no room now for errors”.
United, by contrast, are comfortably ahead of Liverpool in the race for second and automatic entry to the group stages. All they have left to trouble them is the pursuit of Chelsea. It seemed impossible a month ago; now it is merely improbable. The momentum is with them.