Manchester United’s supporters will gather at Old Trafford on Sunday with more than an eye on the score at Stamford Bridge. With Chelsea a point to the good, Sir Alex Ferguson seeks an unlikely favour from Wigan Athletic in the capital. Either way, with a huge end-of-season anti-Glazer protest planned, it’s likely to be a memorable afternoon in Manchester.
On five occasions has the Premier League come down to the final fixture with the title in the balance. Only once have both protagonists emerged victorious. It’s a statistic that offers United hope – if no real expectation – that a fourth Premier League title in a row may yet head to Old Trafford.
While the main plot remains the Premier League’s destination, the subtext is the protest planned by supporters’ groups – a final chance to voice a message against the Glazer family’s ownership of the club before the summer recess. The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) plans to distribute 50,000 whistles, flags and banners in a final act of sedition this season.
On the pitch Ferguson will choose from a near fully fit squad, bar long-term injury victims Michael Owen and Anderson. Winger Antonio Valencia will also miss the match with a minor ankle problem.
Rio Ferdinand, who played 20 minutes in a testimonial match at Upton Park this week, will partner Nemanja Vidic in the heart of United’s defence if declared fit. The England international has started just 12 matches this season, with new contract signee Jonny Evans waiting in the wings.
Focus will also be on those players tipped to play at Old Trafford for the last time, with Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick under pressure to deliver ahead of a potential summer clearout.
While the Bulgarian striker will start with Wayne Rooney in attack, Carrick will be fortunate to make the bench after a disastrous fourth season at Old Trafford. Ferguson insists Berbatov will survive any summer cull. Carrick has received no such assurance.
Victory over Stoke, who shipped seven against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge recently, is a formality Ferguson dare not fail to seal, it will mean little without the result favouring the Scot’s side in London.
“It’s pointless going into the game expecting anything from Chelsea in our favour,” said the United manager, who is seeking a 12th Premier League title at the Old Trafford helm.
“I have confidence that Wigan will do their best and they will try.
“There’s pressure on both us and Chelsea because we both need to win but I don’t know what’s going on in Chelsea’s minds – all I know is that in this situation we just hope.”
“In a way the situation helps us because we can express ourselves, like we did against Sunderland. The players enjoyed themselves and we could have won very comfortably and scored four or five.
“We played without nerves, which is down to our experience. We have been here before and it’s not affected us.”
United supporters closed out last season demanding that Ferguson sign Carlos Tevez on a long-term deal. The Scot failed to do so and fans will never know what difference Tevez’ 29 goals this season could have made to United’s title bid.
This time Ferguson will have Old Trafford’s attention for his end-of-campaign speech.
Unless anti-Glazer fever takes over that is.
United: van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from Foster, Kuszczak, Neville, Brown, Rafael, Evans, Carrick, Gibson, Obertan, Diouf, Fábio, Park, Hargreaves, Macheda.