LONDON, England, April 21 – Manchester United can move to within three points of the Premier League title by beating Aston Villa on Monday and could even finish the game as champions if results go their way this weekend.
Alex Ferguson’s side currently hold a 13-point lead over second-place Manchester City and if their nearest rivals were to lose at Champions League-chasing Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, United would need just three points to secure the English crown.
However, although it seems inevitable that United will succeed City as champions, they are not surging towards the finish line in a blaze of glory.
Their last home game saw them beaten 2-1 by City and at West Ham United on Wednesday, the visitors had to come from behind twice and needed a 77th-minute goal from Robin van Persie to escape Upton Park with a 2-2 draw.
Villa will travel to Old Trafford buoyed by a run of form in which they have taken 10 points from a possible 15 and knowing that a surprise victory would have huge ramifications at the bottom of the table.
If the visitors were to win, both Reading and Queens Park Rangers would be relegated and third-bottom Wigan Athletic would be cut six points adrift of safety.
Villa have beaten Stoke City 3-1 and drawn 1-1 at home to Fulham in their last two outings and United manager Ferguson says their recent performances prove they have the stomach for the relegation fight.
“We expect a scrap. The least you expect is for a team to fight for everything when they’re down there,” he said.
“Villa showed against Stoke that they have a bit of life about them and they should have won their game against Fulham last week. When I saw the structure of those teams, they looked really positive selections.
“A lot of teams in that situation may pick a team to get something out of the game. Paul Lambert picked a team to win. There is a distinction.”
Ferguson has virtually a full squad to select from and must decide whether or not to persevere with Wayne Rooney, who was withdrawn in the 71st minute at West Ham after a subdued display.
Winger Ashley Young will definitely not feature against his former club, however, due to an ankle injury that will keep him out until the end of the season.
Instead, the England international plans to watch the game in the stands with former Villa team-mate Stiliyan Petrov, who this week announced that he was in remission following a year of intensive treatment for leukaemia.
“I’m going to watch the game together with Ashley Young,” the Bulgarian central midfielder told Villa’s in-house television channel, AVTV.
“He wasn’t happy, but I said we’re going to take something from the game. It will be exciting. The boys are looking forward to the game.
“It’s a great stadium, it’s Man United and you want to play games like that every week. The boys will be up for it and I hope we can get a result there.”
Villa are likely to be at full strength, with Belgian striker Christian Benteke sure to be the focus of United’s attention at the end of a week that saw him shortlisted for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Players’ Young Player of the Year award.
Villa’s run-in includes games with fellow relegation candidates Sunderland and Wigan, as well as a home fixture with Chelsea on the season’s penultimate weekend, but Lambert believes they are well placed to avoid the drop.
“If somebody had said we’d take four points out of the games against Stoke and Fulham, I would have taken them,” he said.
“Fulham don’t get the credit they deserve. I can’t fault the players, with all the effort they put in and the chances they created.”