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English Premiership

United ready to launch title sprint

MANCHESTER, England, March 10 – Sir Alex Ferguson believes that West Brom’s visit to Manchester United starts a crucial period in his attempts to keep the Premier League title at Old Trafford.

United were beaten 3-2 by Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of their Europa League last 16 tie at home on Thursday night.

But their form in the Premier League has been imperious since their 3-0 defeat at Newcastle on January 4.

They have dropped just two points – coming from three goals down to earn a 3-3 draw at Chelsea – in the last seven games.

After West Brom, United face Wolves, Fulham, Blackburn, QPR, Wigan and Aston Villa in the build-up to the vital match at Premier League leaders Manchester City on April 30.

Ferguson claimed that last week’s trip to Tottenham, which produced a 3-1 win, was going to be crucial for setting up this phase of fixtures and if they can achieve maximum points from these seven matches they will pile the pressure on City.

The United manager, whose team have won 10 of their 13 home matches this season, has admitted that the deficit ahead of next week’s trip to Atletic could cause him to rest players against West Brom.

But he will be desperate for a victory to keep up with City, who have a two-point advantage ahead of their trip to Swansea.

He could recall Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes for the home game against the Baggies, who have won their last three matches.

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“The players know the challenge is there and we have a great opportunity to kick on after the great result at Spurs and hopefully we’ll manage to do that,” Ferguson said.

“I’ll make one or two changes. Scholes is available and so are Nani and Rio Ferdinand to get the freshness back in.

“West Brom are in a bit of form. But we’re at home and we’re expected to win our games at home and hopefully we can put Thursday’s result behind us.”

Chris Smalling is doubtful with a head knock and the game is likely to come too soon for midfielder Tom Cleverley, who has been out with an ankle injury.

Antonio Valenica and Michael Owen are still out, while Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher have both been ruled out for the rest of the season.

James Morrison has challenged West Brom to target a Europa League spot within the next year and hopes such ambitions will be enough to persuade Roy Hodgson to remain at the helm.

Head coach Hodgson continues to be linked with the England job vacated by Fabio Capello and is viewed as a viable alternative to favourite Harry Redknapp.

The 64-year-old has turned around the Baggies’ fortunes since his arrival 14 months ago but is out of contract in the summer.

“In recent weeks people have just been focused on playing football,” said Morrison. “The results overtake the manager’s situation. If we were losing then maybe it might come into things.

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“But I think the gaffer is shrewd enough to know what he’s doing. I think he is really enjoying it here. So if everyone can stay together I’m sure the gaffer will be here.

“We finished 11th and we’re tenth now, with a quarter of the season still to go. If we can kick on from there you never know what might happen next season.

“The Europa League is definitely something we can look towards next year if we can get more players in. If we got into Europe I’m sure the gaffer would be satisfied with that job.”

Hodgson will be without Steven Reid due to an ankle problem.



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