It’s that period of the year Sir Alex Ferguson famously labeled ‘squeaky bum time’ – the run in to the Premier League dénouement that will ultimately decided this year’s title destination. One suspects that it’s Sir Alex’ favourite time too. While others wilt in the face of pressure, the Scot thrives on the intense Spring competition.
The leading contenders – United, Chelsea and Arsenal – face 13 games before the Premier League concludes in mid May. Just 39 points are now up for grabs in a season of unpredictability. Indeed, a points total of just low to mid 80s will probably take the title this season.
United faces successive trips to Aston Villa and then Everton in the next 10 days, with the Champions League tie in Milan to come a week today. In a demanding February fixture list, United also plays the midlands team in the Carling Cup final before the month is out.
In March United has key home games against both Liverpool and Chelsea – key fixtures that will go a long way towards determining the Premier League title. Then on 21 April Ferguson’s side faces a trip to Eastlands to face Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City for a fourth time this season.
But in truth aside from those five fixtures – Villa, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and City – Sir Alex will expect his side to take maximum points with a fully fit squad – Owen Hargreaves and John O’Shea excepted – now at his disposal.
Chelsea’s fixture list looks balanced, with trips to Spurs and Liverpool as the most obvious banana skins. Carlo Ancelotti’s team also plays home ties against City and Villa in a marginally easier run-in than United’s.
Meanwhile, Arsenal – already heavily beaten by United and Chelsea in the past fortnight – arguably has the easiest run-in of the leading contenders. Arsène Wenger’s side meets Liverpool at the Emirates this weekend, with trips to Spurs and a home tie against City the toughest remaining fixtures on paper.
Chelsea’s two point advantage and, on paper, slightly easier remaining fixtures makes Ancelotti’s side marginal favourites for the title come May. But there is nobody better than Ferguson at managing the run-in.
With the Scot’s key defenders all but fit and Wayne Rooney almost unstoppable, the 3 April fixture against Chelsea already looks like a title decider.
Remaining Premier League games:
Manchester United: Aston Villa (a), Everton (a), West Ham United (h), Wolverhampton Wanderers (a), Fulham (h), Liverpool (h), Bolton Wanderers (a), Chelsea (h), Blackburn Rovers (a), Manchester City (a), Tottenham Hotspur (h), Sunderland (a), Stoke City (h).
Chelsea: Everton (a), Wolverhampton Wanderers (a), Manchester City (h), Portsmouth (a), West Ham United (h), Blackburn Rovers (a), Aston Villa (a), Manchester United (a), Bolton Wanderers (h), Tottenham Hotspur (a), Stoke City (h), Liverpool (a), Wigan Athletic (h).
Arsenal: Liverpool (h), Sunderland (h), Stoke City (a), Burnley (h), Hull City (a), West Ham United (h), Birmingham City (a), Wolverhampton Wanderers (h), Tottenham Hotspur (a), Wigan Athletic (a), Manchester City (h), Blackburn Rovers (a), Fulham (a).