LONDON, England, February 22 – Manchester United will be without Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones as they aim to stretch their lead at the top of the Premier League to 15 points with victory at bottom club Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
Rooney, who has scored 10 goals in his last 11 starts, has a sinus problem, while Jones injured his ankle in Monday’s 2-1 win at home to Reading in the FA Cup fifth round.
With progress in the FA Cup secured and a healthy 1-1 draw recorded in last week’s trip to Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, United can now re-focus their attention on the quest for a 20th English league crown.
The trip to Loftus Road is the first of five consecutive games in which United will face sides currently residing in the table’s bottom half, before a potential title decider at home to nearest rivals Manchester City on April 8.
With City facing an awkward game at home to third-place Chelsea on Sunday, a United victory at QPR could represent a decisive blow in the title race.
However, having seen his side squander an eight-point lead over City last season, United manager Alex Ferguson has warned his players to concentrate on the task in hand.
“The only way we can approach it is by taking care of each game and eventually we run out of matches,” he said.
“I can understand from Manchester City’s point of view why they are talking about us dropping points. But the fact of the matter is they will drop them as well.”
City have all but given up hope of retaining the title, after a run of three games without victory — culminating in a woeful 3-1 defeat at Southampton in their last league outing — saw them fall 12 points off the pace.
They now find themselves under pressure from Chelsea, who capitalised on City’s defeat at St Mary’s by crushing Wigan Athletic 4-1 to close to within four points of Roberto Mancini’s side.
“If we get a positive result on Sunday, then that opens it right back up,” says Chelsea centre-back Gary Cahill.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, but we’ll be looking to do that on Sunday.
“It’ll be a tough game away from home, but if we do get a positive result then obviously second place is within touching distance.”
Arsenal have endured a bleak week, crashing out of the FA Cup to second-tier Blackburn Rovers and then losing 3-1 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, but they have plenty of incentive to beat Aston Villa on Saturday.
Tottenham Hotspur currently enjoy a four-point lead over Arsenal in the final Champions League spot, but with Spurs not in action until Monday, a win for the Gunners will give them renewed hope of overhauling their derby rivals.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger came under pressure following Tuesday’s one-sided loss at home to Bayern, but forward Theo Walcott says the only solution is for the whole club to pull together and put on a united front.
“We’ve got the best man in the job to get our heads back to where they should be,” he said.
“We need to react in a positive way straight away. We can’t be down in the dumps in training. Everybody needs to be alive and alert, recover well.
“We’ve got a good run in the Premier League — we can’t forget that.
“We’ve had some good points, very important points, so we’ve just got to start believing again. I think that’s one of the main things — believe in how good we are, because we didn’t show it against Bayern.”
QPR go into the weekend seven points adrift of safety at the foot of the table, but second-bottom Wigan and third-bottom Reading are both within touching distance of salvation ahead of their crunch clash at the Madejski Stadium.
Reading are just a point behind fourth-bottom Villa, with Wigan two points further back.
Swansea City’s meeting with fourth-tier Bradford City in the League Cup final on Sunday means that neither the Welsh club nor scheduled opponents Liverpool are in league action this weekend.
Saturday (1500GMT unless otherwise stated):
Arsenal v Aston Villa, Fulham v Stoke City (1245GMT), Norwich City v Everton, Queens Park Rangers v Manchester United, Reading v Wigan Athletic, West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland
Manchester City v Chelsea, Newcastle United v Southampton
West Ham United v Tottenham Hotspur