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Saturday, May 8, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Manchester United not giving up title hopes


LONDON — If Chelsea does not beat Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to secure the Premier League title, there should be a steward's inquiry.

Christopher Davies

Chances are the Blues will be facing Wigan's third-choice goalkeeper, Mike Pollitt, 38, a former Manchester United trainee who was released by Sir Alex Ferguson in 1991 without playing a senior game for the Reds.

United needs Wigan to avoid defeat and to beat Stoke at Old Trafford to win the Premier League for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year.

Sir Alex Ferguson, more in hope than expectancy, will not give up while it is still mathematically possible for the Reds to overtake Chelsea.

He said: "All we can do is to win our game. Obviously, I wouldn't say it's a sealed result against Wigan by any shadow of a doubt. They're a good team, they'll have a go and you just never know. It's a crazy game. Maybe we are clutching at straws a little bit. It is important for us to win in front of our home fans and play the right way.

"It would be an incredible achievement for us. At the least we have stretched the title race and kept the nerves going."

Incredible?

More like miraculous.

Pollitt has started only seven league games in four years but was told by Wigan manager Roberto Martinez to "impress me in training this week" ahead of the title showdown.

First-choice goalkeeper Chris Kirkland is injured. His backup, Vladimir Stojkovic, on loan from Sporting Lisbon, gives the impression he is allergic to the ball, quite a disadvantage for a footballer. He has been a flapping disaster, a mistake waiting to happen and Wigan supporters know they rarely have to wait very long.

True, Stojkovic can make some excellent shot-stopping saves, but the test of a goalkeeper is how he commands his goal-area and his handling of crosses.

On the last two counts Stojkovic is, being polite, lacking. His aversion to the ball makes it even more remarkable that he has been Serbia's goalkeeper for the last four years despite being out in the cold at Sporting.

It is obviously not a vintage era for goalkeepers in Serbia.

After Stojkovic's display in last Monday's 2-2 draw with Hull, when he was taunted with ironic applause by Wigan fans, Martinez is set to choose the veteran Pollitt for the game that will decide the destiny of the title.

As it pushes for domestic glory Chelsea needs three goals to beat United's single-season Premier League record of 97.

Didier Drogba (26), Frank Lampard (21) and Chelsea's most improved player, Florent Malouda (12), have all had their best ever season in terms of goals.

Jose Mourinho's two title triumphs saw Chelsea score 72 goals each season. Chelsea amassed 95 points, 12 clear of Arsenal when Mourinho won his first title.

A Chelsea victory on Saturday will see it on 86 points, the natural conclusion being Mourinho's teams were more pragmatic, able — even happy — to grind out low-scoring wins.

Carlo Ancelotti is not a manager associated with free-scoring teams and, given his Italian background, it is probably surprising that Chelsea's defensive record is the worst since 2002-03, the season before Roman Abramovich bought the club.

Ancelotti has had little alternative than to place the emphasis on attack given the defensive injury problems Chelsea has had.

John Terry's partner has generally been Alex rather than his long-term buddy Ricardo Carvalho.

Branislav Ivanovic has emerged as an outstanding right-back with Yuri Zhirkov filling in at left-back when Ashley Cole was sidelined for two months.

Ancelotti has used five different players in the midfield holding role in the wake of Michael Essien's injury.

The former AC Milan coach is on course to win a league and Cup double — Chelsea faces Portsmouth in the F.A. Cup final — in his first season in England and no one has ever achieved that before.

Intriguingly, the likable Ancelotti cannot explain his side's reputation as the great entertainers.

"I don't consider myself an attacking coach," he said almost apologetically. "I am Italian and the mind-set of Italian football is defensive. The team that wins Serie A is not usually the side that scores the most, but the one that concedes the least. I do like to hurt the opposition, of course, but I like defense first and foremost, and balance."

The improbable scenario on Sunday afternoon is that Wigan wins at Stamford Bridge, and, meanwhile, back at Old Trafford, United ends the season with a home draw against Stoke.

That combination would mean United and Chelsea ending the campaign level on 83 points but the Londoners would take the crown by way of a superior goal-difference, unless, that is, Wigan won 10-0 at the Bridge.

Then there would be more than a steward's inquiry.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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