United's rivals clinging on by fingertips

Two poachers goals from Liverpool striker Fernando Torres sparked joyous scenes at Anfield on Sunday and television executives would have raised a glass to the Spaniard for at least keeping the title race interesting.

It was only a few weeks ago that the Premier League looked like being the closest run thing for years but were it not for Liverpool's 2-0 defeat of Chelsea, champions Manchester United would have been disappearing over the horizon.

United have been busy re-writing the record books with 12 consecutive clean sheets in the league, a run containing a burst of seven straight victories that has left the chasing pack hanging on by their fingertips.

There are huge question marks about the ability of United's pursuers to stay in touch much longer.

Liverpool, who seemed firmly on course to land a first league title since 1990 a few weeks ago, are just two points behind, although United have played a game less.

The league table does not tell the full story, however.

On December 13 Liverpool could have opened up an eight-point gap on United before the champions flew off to play in FIFA's World Club championship -- instead they scraped a 2-2 draw at home to Hull City.

A week later they drew again, with Arsenal, despite the Gunners being down to 10 men.

Further points have been tossed away in January, notably draws with Stoke City and Wigan Athletic, and on top of that manager Rafael Benitez has baffled many with his conservative tactics and team selections.

His pre-scripted blast at United manager Alex Ferguson, possibly designed to unsettle their bitter rivals, has backfired so spectacularly that a galvanised United have hunted down Liverpool with glee.


Chelsea slipped to third on Sunday, five points behind United and the gap will grow to eight if United win their game in hand. They have not beaten United, Liverpool or Arsenal this season and look to have gone backwards this season.

With no signings in the transfer window to speak of, they are desperately lacking width, guile and goals. The free-scoring days of early-season are a distant memory.

Didier Drogba is a shadow of the player who has terrorised Premier League defences in recent seasons while Nicolas Anelka's early-season form has evaporated and Michael Ballack seems stuck in second gear.

Against Liverpool Chelsea managed just one attempt on goal and trudged off with the look of a side knowing their title challenge is as good as over.

At least fourth-placed Aston Villa have performed way above expectations but Martin O'Neil's side lack the depth to keep pace with United and will be more concerned with making sure an enterprising season is rewarded with Champions League football.

Arsenal are a distant fifth, 10 points behind United and even the return of injured players like Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas would not get them back in the mix.

Worryingly for those hoping that United's charge towards an 18th league title might slow down, they have managed to put together their latest run despite an injury list that has reached double figures at times.

With Wayne Rooney soon to return from a hamstring injury to bolster manager Alex Ferguson's formidable array of firepower, the 1-0 wins that have become something of a United speciality of late may be replaced by some real thumpings.