Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Rafa boost for Red Devils
Cape Town – Forget any conspiratorial talk of a Liverpool “rollover” at the hands of Chelsea in the engrossing English Premiership race at Anfield this Sunday.
That is the rosiest development Manchester United enthusiasts can take comfort from after Chelsea took a more crucial step closer to the title than the defending champions did over the weekend – although both teams in the two-way tussle won.
First United struck fairly late to down previously in-form Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 at Old Trafford on Saturday, but then Chelsea pulverised Stoke City 7-0 on Sunday to maintain a precious one-point lead with two rounds of matches left.
It left the Blues (80 points) within two enticing wins – against Liverpool away and Wigan Athletic at home respectively – of guaranteeing the spoils without even having to worry, in that event, about United’s fate against Sunderland (away) and Stoke (home).
Chelsea also improved their goal difference significantly in plundering the Potters, of course: they now sport clear-cut, eight-goal superiority over Alex Ferguson’s charges, who boast 79 points.
Not that that ought to be a factor in the run-in now: it will probably only come into play if Chelsea earn two draws, taking them to a total of 82 points, while United win one and lose one to end on that tally too.
The biggest remaining “banana peel” match for either of the title-chasers is rightly considered to be Chelsea’s trip to Anfield on Sunday.
There had been some mischievous speculation a few days ago – and make that “anxious” from a United fans’ perspective – that Liverpool, assuming they were out of the running for fourth place and a Champions League slot, might let Chelsea win.
It was based on the historical theory, albeit a slightly tenuous one, that the Reds would prefer a Chelsea title win because it would prevent their bitter enemies United from finally edging ahead of them 19-18 in league titles – the teams presently share the lead comfortably on 18 apiece from Arsenal’s 13.
Such a petty scenario would have been highly unlikely, by my book, because any Liverpool-Chelsea scrap tends to be as full-blooded as most, but the good news for Manchester United supporters is that Rafa Benitez’s side (seventh at present) remain in fairly realistic contention for lucrative fourth place.
And that will still be the case on Sunday, whatever happens in matches involving Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City - the teams immediately above them - a day earlier (City are actually entertaining Villa, while Spurs host Bolton).
Liverpool presently have 62 points from 36 games, while fourth-placed Spurs have 64 from 35 – the latter have a game in hand, against Manchester City, which will only be played on the Wednesday after this weekend’s programme.
Another boost for Liverpool’s late assault on fourth is that their goal difference is currently better than any of the trio above them, so climbing three positions by the finish is not quite the stuff of fairytale only.
They also have decent momentum, having come off 3-0 and 4-0 victories against West Ham and Burnley respectively, and remain firmly in the hunt for the Europa League title - they trail just 1-0 to Atletico Madrid after a first-leg semi-final and play the return at Anfield on Thursday, although that could mean some reasonably tired legs by Sunday.
In a television interview after the away thumping of Burnley confirmed that club’s relegation, Benitez would have put some unusual smiles on Manchester United dials when he confirmed his side would maintain their charge for fourth place: “Yes, it is an option, so we must do our job.”
If that “job” includes beating - or at least holding - Chelsea on Sunday (the Reds claimed the corresponding fixture 2-0 last season), the cheers from Manchester may be more deafening than any you will ever hear again from that city for the Liverpool cause …