Dramatic title run-ins all around Europe

LONDON - Football championships, as any bar-room expert will attest, are 'a marathon not a sprint' but as Europe's top leagues enter the home straight the stage is set for some breathless photo-finishes.

One point divides the top two in England, Spain and Italy while there are two points between Germany's leading contenders and five in France.

The Premier League is enjoying one of its most exciting seasons for years as the favourites' tag has winged this way and that throughout the campaign.

Chelsea's 2-1 win at Old Trafford followed by United's goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers earlier this month seemed to swing the race decisively the way of the Londoners as they led by four points with four games remaining.

However, Saturday's double drama as Paul Scholes snatched a stoppage-time 1-0 victory at Manchester City and then watched Tottenham Hotspur beat Chelsea 2-1 opened the door again.

With no Champions League involvement to divert attention for a change, all resources will be centred on the remaining Premier League action.

United, seeking to move ahead of Liverpool with a record 19th title and thereby become the first club to win the top flight four years in a row, next host Spurs on Saturday.

The Old Trafford club then visit Sunderland before hosting Stoke City on the final day of the league season on May 9.

Chelsea, who have a better goal difference than United, entertain Stoke on Sunday and then face a tough trip to Liverpool before finishing up at home to Wigan Athletic.

Third-placed Arsenal now look title outsiders after Sunday's 3-2 defeat at Wigan left them six points off the pace.

Arsenal were involved in two dramatic finishes of their own in 1953 and 1989.

In 1953 they won the championship on goal average, which was replaced by goal difference in 1977, and in 1989 Michael Thomas's late goal at Anfield secured the 2-0 win they needed to take the title on goals scored at Liverpool's expense after the sides finished level on points with the same goal difference.

The league was also decided on goal average in 1924, 1950 and 1965 when Manchester United pipped Leeds United.

Since the launch of the Premier League in 1992 there have been three one-point margins at the end of the season.


In 1999 Manchester United pipped Arsenal, reversing the finishing order of the previous season, while United were also on the receiving end in 1995 when Blackburn Rovers won it.

Inter Milan looked on course for a fourth successive Serie A title when they led by nine points in February but now trail AS Roma with four games left.

Roma's 2-1 win over Lazio on Sunday was the 24th unbeaten league game for Claudio Ranieri's side, who were in turmoil at the start of the season.

Inter fans would probably swap the scudetto for their first European Cup crown since 1965 and the distraction of their Champions League semi-final with Barcelona could play into the hands of Roma and Real Madrid.

Barcelona's lead over Real was cut to one point with five games left after the champions were held to a 0-0 draw at Espanyol at the weekend and Real beat third-placed Valencia 2-0.

The big two have won the title 50 times between them and with Valencia 25 points off the pace and on-going TV revenues heavily favouring Barca and Real, there seems little prospect of anyone else gate-crashing the party in the near future.

In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich go into the last three matches with a two-point lead over Schalke 04.

Bayern, chasing a league, cup and Champions League treble, have a relatively easy-looking run-in against Borussia Moenchengladbach, VfL Bochum and Hertha Berlin.

Schalke are seeking their first title in more than 50 years and a second successive upset success for coach Felix Magath, who steered VfL Wolfsburg to Bundesliga glory last season.

Ligue 1 was also close a few weeks ago but leaders Olympique Marseille have surged clear of Auxerre with five matches remaining.

Marseille have a first title since 1992 in their sights after recording six successive victories, though they still have to travel to Auxerre and fifth-placed Lille.

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