United hoping for final twist in title race

LONDON - Final day twists in the race for the Premier League title are extremely rare but Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson knows from his experience that strange things can sometimes happen under pressure.

His side must beat Stoke City at home on Sunday and hope that Wigan Athletic, among the worst travellers in the top flight, can prevent Chelsea winning at Stamford Bridge.

If not, blue ribbons will replace red on the trophy and leave United with just a League Cup success and a starring role in the most absorbing title race for many years as scant consolation for a long, hard season.

Chelsea are favourite to prevent United winning a record 19th English title on Sunday but their manager Carlo Ancelotti, like Ferguson, has been around the game long enough not to be counting his chickens just yet.

Ferguson, always keen to play a few mind games, said United are now clutching at straws after a 1-0 win at Sunderland last week at least extended the battle to Sunday's finale.

One thing is guaranteed, however, and that is that his side finish with all guns blazing against Stoke.

"We have a chance to win the league and we will fight until the end," United's Nani said this week. "You never know what's going to happen in football. We just have to wait and see and win our game against Stoke at Old Trafford."

Ancelotti, whose side lead the table by a point, will be well aware that only a win against Wigan is likely to be enough but keeper Petr Cech said that scenario will do nicely.

"If at the beginning of the season someone had said we were going to play the last game at home and a win would win the league, I think everybody would have signed for it," he said.

"So we know what we have to do. We play at home and it is always good if you can win a title at home."


Things are not always as straightforward as they seem though. United have been involved in four last-day deciders, the first of which, in 1995, left a bitter taste for the Reds but could now offer some encouragement.

Blackburn Rovers went into their final fixture at Liverpool two points above United that year and needing a win to make certain of the title but were beaten 2-1 at Anfield.

United were left kicking themselves, however, as they could only draw 1-1 away at West Ham United who defended as though their lives depended on it.

"Yes, we've had a few of these last day encounters over the years and we've been fortunate to win three of them. But we did lose one at West Ham," Fergsuon said on United's website.

"But it's important to understand we have the experience of these things, winning and losing. So we've got to handle ourselves in the right way."

All eyes will be on Wigan's performance. Roberto Martinez's side beat Chelsea at home this season, Ancelotti's first taste of defeat in the Premier League and they have proved themselves capable of worrying the top sides, most recently Arsenal who they beat 3-2 after trailing 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining.

Away from home they have struggled though and have conceded 47 goals, nine of them coming in a thrashing at Tottenham Hotspur before Christmas.

Ferguson was quick to talk up Wigan immediately after beating Sunderland and he will take encouragement from Martinez's rallying call to his players.

"It is not that Wigan Athletic is going to play for Manchester United. We will play for the good of football and for ourselves," Spaniard Martinez said.

"It is a unique experience to go to Stamford Bridge having the world of football watching. We have got nothing to lose, but I can guarantee you that there is a belief in the squad that on the day we can compete with anyone. We are going to go to Stamford Bridge to try to win the game."

The only other remaining issue to be decided on Sunday is who will finish third and avoid a Champions League qualifying tie.

Arsenal will achieve that with a point at home to Fulham although defeat could let in Tottenham Hotspur who travel to relegated Burnley with a top-four finish guaranteed.

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