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English Premiership

Crunch time as heavyweights collide

LONDON, March 13 – Manchester United can effectively wrap up a third consecutive English Premier League title by beating Liverpool in Saturday's eagerly anticipated lunchtime clash at Old Trafford.

STEVIE_ME_CELEBRATESVictory would send the Red Devils ten points clear of both Liverpool and Chelsea and it is inconceivable that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men would let that kind of advantage slip over the course of their ten remaining fixtures.

Even if Liverpool can perform at the Theatre of Dreams as vibrantly as they did in Tuesday night’s 4-0 hammering of Real Madrid and secure all three points, United would remain short-odds favourites to bounce back and win the league.

But a Liverpool win would, at least, offer a glimmer of hope to both Rafael Benitez’s men and a revitalised Chelsea, who will be seeking to extend their unbeaten run under temporary manager Guus Hiddink to seven matches when Manchester City visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

The problem for the chasing pair is that United have yet to show anything approaching a whiff of a suggestion that they are about to start dropping points carelessly.

The high number of chances Inter Milan managed to create at Old Trafford in midweek may have offered encouragement to Fernando Torres and co, who emerged as winners when the two sides met at Anfield earlier in the season.

Since then however United have slipped seamlessly through several changes of gear and they will approach Saturday’s match seeking a 12th consecutive win in the league.

Wayne Rooney believes the pressure on Liverpool to get all three points will ensure an open game, to United’s benefit.

"I think coming to Old Trafford it will be a difficult game for them," said the England striker.

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"They know they need to win, they need the three points. I’m sure they will be up for it and we certainly will be, but they know if we beat them it will probably end their chances of winning the league."
Both sides will be close to full strength, although Liverpool will have the advantage of 24 hours additional recovery time from their midweek exertions.

The recovery factor could be an issue for Arsenal, who only arrived back in England in the small hours of Thursday morning following their wearying penalty shoot-out victory over Roma.

Arsene Wenger will be relieved Saturday’s fixture is at the Emirates but the visit of a Blackburn side that is both desperate for points and on a bit of a run will not be one the Gunners boss anticipates with great relish.

Blackburn are looking significantly better organised under Sam Allardyce and, after taking seven points from their last three matches, have escaped from the drop zone.

Arsenal are unbeaten in 18 matches but they still have a three-point deficit to make up on Aston Villa, their rivals for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot.

Wenger remains confident that the gap can be bridged and was bolstered in his optimism by the nature of Wednesday night’s victory.

"We showed tremendous mental strength in Rome and that makes me so proud because it is a quality that has been questioned this season. It will give us more confidence."

Villa, who have not played since March 4, have to wait until Sunday, when they entertain Tottenham, to see if their sunshine break in Dubai has had the hoped-for rejuvenating effect.

Martin O’Neill’s side have taken just one point from their last three league matches while Tottenham will be desperate to keep their heads above the relegation quagmire.

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Saturday could be a hugely significant day in the battle for survival with Newcastle travelling to Hull and Middlesbrough, currently second from bottom, entertaining the team immediately above them, Portsmouth.

Newcastle will be bolstered by the return of Michael Owen from his latest injury, an ankle problem that has kept him sidelined for the last six weeks.

Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)

Arsenal v Blackburn, Bolton v Fulham, Everton v Stoke City, Hull City v Newcastle, Manchester United v Liverpool (1245 GMT), Middlesbrough v Portsmouth, Sunderland v Wigan

Aston Villa v Tottenham (1600 GMT), Chelsea v Manchester City (1330 GMT)

West Ham v West Brom (2000 GMT)

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