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Saturday, May 7, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Title race down to dramatic finale


LONDON — The most fascinating, topsy-turvy season in Premier League history comes to a dramatic climax on Sunday when Manchester United meets Chelsea at Old Trafford. It is not quite winner takes all but almost. In a season of unpredictability it is fitting the title race should go to the wire.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

When Chelsea trailed United by 15 points on Valentine's Day, even Carlo Ancelotti admitted the Blues were out of the title race. As recently as last week Betfred bookmakers paid out £300,000 to punters who had wagered on United being champions.

Betfred owner Fred Done faces the prospect of a double payout if the Blues repeat last season's success at Old Trafford. A 1-0 victory for Chelsea would put the pair equal on points with Ancelotti's reigning champions having a two-goal advantage.

The title is still United's to lose and Ferguson has more experience than anyone of this type of situation. He gambled on playing a weakened if not weak team against Schalke on Wednesday, United's second string coming up trumps with a 4-1 win.

Ferguson plays his cards so brilliantly he would have made Cool Hand Luke a bag of nerves. Against Chelsea, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Park Ji Sung, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez will return refreshed, while Darren Fletcher is fit again after a virus.

Ancelotti will be tempted to stick with Fernando Torres, who has a good record against United, alongside a rejuvenated Didier Drogba, though Chelsea's recent impressive form has much to do with the return to full fitness of Frank Lampard, plus the outstanding David Luiz, who has settled into English football with the minimum of fuss since his January move from Benfica.

John Terry provides the central defensive strength and leadership, Luiz the subtlety and speed and their battle against Rooney and Hernandez will be crucial to the outcome.

United has won 16 and drawn one of its 17 home league matches; Chelsea has collected 26 of the last possible 30 points. The powerhouses of English football are in top form, United boosted by reaching its third Champions League final in four years. This will be England's El Clasico.

It is impossible to imagine the clash of the two best teams in English football being anything but exciting, though the way the season has gone it is equally likely one or both teams will blame referee Howard Webb for perceived injustices.

Ref baiting has been the biggest negative of the last nine months with Ferguson leading the way.

Arsenal, which beat United 1-0 last Sunday, is three points behind Chelsea and realistically, if not mathematically, out of the title race, leaving Arsene Wenger to reflect on what might have been.

The Gunners' hopes were thrown away during a disastrous week last month and Wenger said: "We were 1-0 up against Liverpool in the 97th minute and drew, we lost a 3-1 lead at Spurs, and then missed chances to go 2-1 up against Bolton and ended up losing.

"If we could have made nine points from those games we would be ahead of Manchester United — so that was the time (we lost the title). I felt so strongly that we would win this championship."

* * *

"FOOTBALL is coming home," said Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach as he prepares for the most mouth-watering of Champions League finals against Manchester United. Somehow, the football gods have decreed the two best teams in Europe will meet at Wembley in what will surely be a sumptuous occasion.

United beat Benfica in the European Cup final at Wembley in 1968, Barcelona defeated Sampdoria there in 1992. After the rancor, bad blood and diving of the semifinals between Barcelona and Read Madrid we can look forward to one of the greatest nights Wembley has witnessed.

Unlike Guardiola and Jose Mourinho who despise each other, the Barcelona coach and Sir Alex Ferguson are close friends with a mutual respect, many Old Trafford faithful hoping the Catalan is the eventual successor to English football's most successful manager.

Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets and Pedro reduced themselves to the street fighter's level of Mourinho's Real with their play-acting in the semis, but such antics should not overshadow the fact that Guardiola's Dream Team can claim to be the greatest side of all time with a Wembley win.

It is almost impossible to imagine Barcelona's front five — Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, David Villa and Lionel Messi -not scoring against anyone, so United will probably need at least two goals to beat Team Guardiola. They are not unbeatable, they lost 2-1 at Arsenal in February, but victory would arguably be Sir Alex Ferguson's finest achievement.

Barcelona has the better players, of that there can be no dispute. Only Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra would force their way into a side that has elevated passing to an art form.

But United has a team that mirrors its manager's personality, spirit, inner strength, passion, determination and belief.

Roll on May 28th.

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


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