Sunday, March 16, 2008

United Go Top as Derby Restore Some Pride

It was a good day for United in the Premiership on Saturday as Fergie's men ground out an important 1-0 victory over bottom of the table Derby which springboarded the Reds to the summit of the league table. Even better news was to occur later in the day as Arsenal's league form continued to capitulate with a 1-1 home drawn against Middlesboro - leaving the Red Devils at the top of the shop on goal difference, but with a crucial game in hand.

The win over Paul Jewell's Rams should have been business as usual for Fergie's boys, however this win was far from routine. Derby were coming into this one after a 6-1 spanking at Stamford Bridge in midweek and for the first twenty minutes it seemed inevitable that they would have their collective asses handed to them once again as United, and Ronaldo in particular, carved open some excellent chances.

However United spurned chances and as Derby weathered the storm it was they who nearly took the lead before the break, with United debutant Ben Foster twice denying Scotsman Kenny Miller.

Indeed it was fairly lively debut for Foster, who had a good game despite leaving some question marks over his kicking. Interestingly, his opposite number was former United goalie Roy Carroll, who probably had a better game in this one than many he had when representing the Red Devils.

Thankfully for United, the Irishman's goal was eventually breached with Wayne Rooney crossing in for the unstoppable Ronaldo to put away his 31st goal of the season in the 74th minute. After the Portuguese had broken the deadlock the result was never in doubt, with Carroll again having to deny his former team mates on more than one occasion.

The importance of this result was compounded by the news that Arsenal were later held to their fourth league draw on the trot with Middlesboro grabbing a share of the spoils at the Emirates. Ironically for the Gunners it was Arsenal old boy Jerome Aliadiere who did for them with a goal for the Smoggies on his return to North London. Kolo Toure bagged a late leveler for the Gunners but it wasn't enough to return Wenger's team to pole position.

This could be a crucial weekend in the title race with Arsenal gearing up to face Chelsea, Liverpool and United in three out of their next four league fixtures. Not to mention the added distraction of what could be two energy sapping games against Liverpool in the Champions League during this spell.

Only a fool would count Chelsea out of the race and despite some poor cup results, Avram Grant's flat track bullies are stalking the top two with brutal efficiency. Another league game and another win saw Chelsea's impressive league form continue at Sunderland as John Terry popped up with a crucial goal to put Roy Keane's Blackcats to the sword. This leaves Grant's men within just 3 points of both United and Arsenal, and like United, they have a game in hand on the Gunners.

Those games in hand will happen this Wednesday night as United entertain local rivals Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea travel to their Carling Cup conquerors Tottenham Hotspur. United have eminently the more winnable fixture and while Bolton will be looking to inflict an unlikely double over the Champions, Ferguson has enough aces in his pack to get a measure of revenge over Megson's men. Make no mistake, if United fail to put a bit of daylight between themselves and Arsenal on Wednesday night, then it can be considered an outright disaster by anyone's standards.

Chelsea will also have revenge on their minds as they go into the first of two consecutive clashes against North London opposition. Spurs made Chelsea look ordinary in the Carling Cup Final and the Ramos Revolutionaries will be more than confident of taking some points off their bitter local rivals on Wednesday night. The match may also be a true litmus test of Chelsea's title aspirations, the team from the Kings Road have bulldozed inferior opponents all season (Barnsley aside), but have come up short in the big league matches and in two recent cup ties. If they are going to keep pace with the leaders then the Stamford Bridge outfit really need to take something at White Hart Lane and while their outstanding record on this ground shouldn't be ignored, Ramos's team may have a psychological advantage following their Wembley victory.

In the cold light of day, even a Chelsea loss won't knock them out of the race this Wednesday, chiefly because both United and Arsenal need to visit the Blues before the end of the season and Chelsea's home record is second to none. However, failure to take the points against Spurs will leave Grant with a bloody nose, and the media, possibly along with Chelsea honcho Roman Abramovich, will start to sharpen those knives once again.

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