Whilst bitter rivals Liverpool did them a favour in the league, United suffered cup heartache at the hands of neighbours Manchester City. Although not affecting their league standing, the result comes as a blow to a side that had been steadily gathering momentum towards the business end of the season. Prior to Saturday’s defeat, United notched up seven consecutive wins in all competitions, including impressive victories over Arsenal and Chelsea. With United still to face those two before the league season draws to its conclusion, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will quickly have to regain their momentum.
United are six points clear, with star striker Wayne Rooney netting six times in his last six matches – an ominous 666 for Arsenal as the Red Devils appear set to pip them to the title. Having been instrumental in dismantling Chelsea over two legs in Europe, Rooney’s absence was keenly felt on Saturday as United lacked the guile and craft to unlock City’s resolute defence. His suspension now complete, he will be raring to go against Newcastle United and with four wins and two draws in their last six against the Magpies – netting 19 goals in the process – Ferguson’s men will be confident of extending their lead to nine points come Tuesday night.
On Saturday they host Everton who have scored three times in each of their last two meetings, although, perhaps significantly, the Toffees’ four-point haul came from matches at Goodison Park and United have dropped only two points at Old Trafford this season. Rather than any one side, fatigue appears to be the main obstacle facing the Red Devils as they compete for the Champions League, meaning key matches against both Arsenal and Chelsea are preceded by semi-final clashes with Schalke.
Arsenal’s last-minute penalty drama denied them the opportunity to close the gap significantly, and the Gunners must regroup ahead of a pivotal trip across north London to face bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Having relinquished their game in hand, the clash with United becomes all the more important for Arsene Wenger’s men, although the danger is that United could be out of sight by the time they host their title rivals. If Arsenal can remain in the hunt with three games to go, they face Stoke City who have a Wembley cup final on the horizon, then Aston Villa and Fulham – two teams failing to reach the heights of 2009/10. Yet, before this apparently kind finale, the Gunners must negotiate their way past their two closest rivals.
With United in the driving seat, the title appears to be theirs for the taking, yet in Premier League, title run-ins are rarely that straightforward.