Late Chelsea winner leaves Manchester United with work to do

As Salomon Kalou prodded in Chelsea’s winner against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, the watching Sir Alex Ferguson must have realised the importance of ensuring his players see out their Premier League advantage professionally, starting with Sunday’s fixture at the Emirates.

There is no doubt a five point lead with a game in hand would have been an almost insurmountable advantage, but Chelsea’s three points means Manchester United will now have to ensure they are not beaten by either Arsenal or the Blues in their next league fixtures while simultaneously juggling the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Arsenal, themselves out of the race for the Premier League, are United’s next opponents, in a fixture which the Manchester outfit won comfortably last season 3-1. They must show the same clinical edge if the Gunners are not to spoil the party. The Red Devils, however, have been inconsistent on their travels this season, with just five wins from the 17 games so far, fewer than the other four teams that make up the top five. Fortunately for United fans they have lost just three with their problem largely being an inability to convert draws into wins – with nine matches ending with shared spoils.

Arsenal, likewise, have a less than impressive home record for a team challenging for the title for much of the season. Just 59% of games at the Emirates have ended in three points for Arsene Wenger’s men, and far weaker teams than United have ended up happy after 90 minutes with the Gunners. West Brom, Newcastle and Spurs have each taken maximum points away from Arsenal, although since the most recent home defeat by Tottenham in November, Arsenal have a much stronger record in north London. That said, with each of the last three games there ending in draws, United will fancy their chances of at least not being defeated – a point would be invaluable, considering Ferguson’s side have only a slight goal difference advantage over Chelsea, with +39 to +38.

Should United lose to Arsenal, Chelsea would have the opportunity to return to the top of the table for the first time since November 22 when the two sides meet just a week later. Seen that way, the importance both of Chelsea’s 89th-minute winner on Saturday and Sunday’s game at the Emirates become clear. Indeed, it is most likely the final opportunity for any other side than United to have a say in where the title is heading. A United win, however, and the Premier League will surely return to Old Trafford after a year away.

Manchester United’s previous two games against top six opposition ended in defeat – 2-1 to Chelsea, 3-1 to Liverpool respectively – with both coming in the last two months. Indeed, having drawn 0-0 against both Manchester City and Spurs, United are yet to win away against any of their nearest challengers, which strongly suggests Arsenal might yet have a say in who is to win the league even being out of it themselves. A fully professional performance is required from the visitors if it is not to be a nervy last few weeks of the season.

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