LONDON, April 24 – Manchester United can take a huge step towards retaining their Premier League title on Saturday but first they must do what none of their rivals have managed this season — take all three points from a meeting with Tottenham.
Harry Redknapp’s side may have spent the first half of the season struggling near the bottom of the table, but a defeat of Liverpool, a win and a draw against Chelsea and two draws with Arsenal underline their ability to raise their game against top level opponents.
Liverpool’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal in midweek has increased United’s margin for error.
But although Sir Alex Ferguson’s men capitalised with a 2-0 win over Portsmouth 24 hours later, their performance was sufficiently jittery to suggest Tottenham could pose a tougher challenge at Old Trafford.
Spurs defender Jonathan Woodgate is anticipating a tight encounter and does not expect United to rest any of their big names ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Arsenal.
"We haven’t been beaten by any of the top sides in the league this season and we have beaten Liverpool and Chelsea," Woodgate said.
"Our record against the top four is impeccable but United will put out a strong side and it will be very tough."
The early evening match will see Michael Carrick come up against his former club and the midfielder believes United just need to hold their nerve for the final month of the campaign.
"Liverpool’s draw was a big boost and we’re in a decent position now," he said. "Hopefully we can keep the momentum going until the end of the season and put the league to bed as quickly as we can. There are big games coming thick and fast and we need to be at our best in all of them."
Liverpool, who have been scoring freely but also leaking goals of late, cannot afford to dwell on their midweek setback as they prepare for what is likely to be a ferociously contested meeting with Hull.
Phil Brown’s side are fighting for their Premier League lives with only a three-point cushion between them and the relegation zone.
Sunderland, who are only a point better off than Hull, will be desperate to take all three points from their trip to bottom side West Brom, who could be relegated as early as next weekend if results go against them.
Middlesbrough, who travel to Arsenal on Sunday, could benefit if Arsene Wenger opts to rest some of his big names ahead of the Champions League clash with Manchester United.
Gareth Southgate’s side, who entertain United next weekend, desperately need to start picking up some points and the Boro boss believes the fact that his side have been in trouble for so long could actually help them beat the drop.
"In a strange way, we have got less tension about us because we have faced the worst possible scenario being where we are, and we have realised we can handle that," Southgate said.
"If you can handle that, you can look forward and see what we can go on and achieve."
With West Ham entertaining Chelsea, Fulham will be hoping for a win over Stoke that could see them leapfrog their London rivals into seventh, the final qualifying spot for next season’s Europa League, the successor to the UEFA Cup.
Blackburn will see their home encounter with Wigan on Saturday as a golden opportunity to pull clear of the drop zone at the expense of opponents with little left to play for this season.
Everton’s meeting with Manchester City looks to be the match with least at stake this weekend but Everton’s on-loan Brazilian striker Jo will at least have a point to prove to the club that paid 18 million pounds to bring him to England before the start of the season then offloaded him in January.
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated)
Bolton v Aston Villa, Everton v Manchester City, Fulham v Stoke City, Hull City v Liverpool, Manchester Utd v Tottenham (1630 GMT), West Brom v Sunderland, West Ham v Chelsea
Arsenal v Middlesbrough (1230 GMT), Blackburn v Wigan (1500 GMT)
Newcastle v Portsmouth (1900 GMT)