Euro high leaves United keen to finish league mission
LONDON: The prospect of a Champions League final meeting with Barcelona has left Manchester United's stars impatient to wrap up a third straight Premier League title as early as possible.
Having demolished Arsenal in midweek to book their ticket to Rome for the European showpiece, the Red Devils entertain crosstown rivals Manchester City on Sunday confident of taking another big step towards retaining the domestic trophy.
By then, Liverpool could have returned to the top of the table with Rafael Benitez's men in action at West Ham on Saturday evening.
But even if Liverpool take maximum points from that match and their subsequent two fixtures, United know they will be champions again with seven points from the four matches they have still to play.
A derby win followed by a victory at Wigan in midweek would almost take them over the line and, having steamrollered Arsenal at the Emirates on Tuesday, the trophy could well be handed over at the end of the Gunners visit to Old Trafford on May 16.
That would leave United with the luxury of 11 days of relaxed preparation for Rome, where United will bid to become the first club to retain the European Cup since the Champions League format was introduced in 1992-93.
"We are well aware there's a bit of league business to sort out before we go to Rome," said United's England midfielder, Michael Carrick.
"We've got some big games coming up. When they come round you want to perform to your best, this is the time when it counts in terms of trophies. Hopefully we will play like we did against Arsenal." Paul Scholes believes United's position is testimony to the strength in depth in the squad assembled by Sir Alex Ferguson.
"I think our quality in depth is better than anybody else's," said the veteran. "We've got a big squad, we've been saying that all season, and it's really been tested. We are in a great position but we've still got tough games to come. City beat us last year and Arsenal are always difficult.
"We've also got two tough away games - Wigan are a good attacking team and Hull (whom United play on the last day of the season) are fighting for their lives, so we are not quite there yet." Liverpool know the slightest slip now will be fatal and that even a perfect run-in may not be enough to deny United the title. But Reds' skipper Steven Gerrard believes his side is getting close to claiming their first English title since 1990.
"If United close it out then we're going to have a right good go over the next three, four or five years and I believe we're too good not to win it," Gerrard said. "I honestly believe in my heart of hearts that this team will win the title." Arsenal and Chelsea's exit from the Champions League in midweek is likely to make for a subdued atmosphere when they meet at the Emirates on Sunday.
But they do still have some work to do with Chelsea only six points clear of their north London rivals in third place, which is rewarded with automatic entry to the group stages of next season's Champions League.
At the other end of the table Blackburn can virtually assure their top flight survival by beating Portsmouth at home on Saturday.
Hull, the side closest to the drop zone, will pile the pressure on to Newcastle and Middlesbrough, who meet on Monday night, if they can overcome Stoke and Sunderland badly need to pick up some points and some confidence on their trip to Bolton.