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Premiership battles on three fronts

Three teams still remain in the competition for the English Premier League title, and others are going all-out in pursuit of fourth place and relegation avoidance


AT this time of year, excuses and misfortune count for very little as we draw closer to a grand finish in the title race, the battle for fourth spot and the fight for survival.

Manchester United are now favourites to claim a fourth successive title. Whereas other sides seem to stutter at the end of the season, United appear to slip through the gears and never look back. They travel to Bolton on Saturday, and will be confident of retaining top spot in the league.

Coyle has vindicated his move to Bolton by steering them to safety. With the clubs separated by just a few miles, a shock victory for Bolton would feel like a Cup victory and would cap their mini revival.

Park was United’s hero last week against Liverpool and he epitomises Sir Alex’s team this season. United haven’t played their most elegant football this term, but they have shown the character that makes champions. Bolton will battle hard, and Davis will always be a threat, but with Park and Fletcher giving Man United its heartbeat and Rooney adding the gloss, the Red Devils should stay in pole position.

Chelsea host Aston Villa in a game which they simply must win. Ancelotti will be feeling a little hot under the collar right now despite their midweek thrashing of Pompey. They’ve been eliminated from Europe and seem to be throwing away their chances in the league.

Villa have a mean defensive record, and Chelsea will have to play with more imagination than usual if they want to take all three points. Martin O’Neil’s side will definitely play the counterattack and look to defend deep.

Chelsea and their home fans may have to exercise patience, as Villa are desperate for points themselves. However, Anelka and Drogba work well as a pair and should provide the difference in a cagey match.

Birmingham have been one of the surprise packages this season. They play at a high tempo and make their opponents scrap for any points. Arsenal visit St Andrews in fine form, and you can start to see that they believe then can win the Premiership. Fabregas’ return has given them an extra boost, and even though Bendtner is no Rooney or Drogba, the rest of the team make up for his short comings.

Jerome with his pace and strength might cause the Gunners’ back four a few problems but, with Birmingham sitting safely mid-table, Arsenal’s extra motivation should lead them to victory.

Park Ji Sung (centre) epitomises the excellence of the Manchester United side, who are odds on the clinch their fourth successive English Premier League title. AFP

Tottenham have a precarious run into the league conclusion, playing all of the title challengers. A win at home against a beleaguered Portsmouth Saturday is crucial. Spurs have major injury concerns, but Pompey lack any fight and will have their best player this season, O’Hara, missing because he is on loan from White Hart Lane. Gudjohnsen has finally settled, and he should provide the class in a straightforward home banker.

Benitez is under more pressure than any other manager right now, with Spurs and Man City poised to destroy their Champions League hopes. Sunderland have a poor away record, and if Liverpool fail to take all three points at Anfield Sunday, Benitez might as well bring out the white flag.

Torres will always pose a threat for the Reds, as will Bent for the Black Cats. No Liverpool players are in decent form, and even though they should beat Steve Bruce’s side, they are likely to make hard work of it.

West Ham under Zola must have been rocked by their defeat to Wolves at home Tuesday. Stoke visit Upton Park Saturday, and will certainly prove no pushover’s. It doesn’t matter at this time of the season what style of play you practice, as long as you win.

The Hammers need to roll up their sleeves and give their fans something to sing about. McCarthy and Cole will need to find the back of the net, but West Ham’s leaky defence is going to need some sorting out. Stoke will cause major problems from set plays, and they should take a hard earned point back home.

Hull under new boss Dowie are still short of quality, but can they pull off another great escape from the dreaded drop? Fulham, who visit the KC Stadium Saturday, must be running on empty. The amount of games they’ve played in the last month would test even the largest squads.

Bullard is Hull’s most creative player, but Fulham will be disciplined as always and offer no space for the Tigers to play. Zamora will work his socks off upfront for the Cottagers, but it’s hard to see them scoring freely. Hull need more than a draw, but even with Altidore starting to show some skill, I fear this game could be a drab draw.

Wolves and Everton are both in top form. Mick McCarthy’s side are close to safety, but could do without having to host a rejuvenated Everton side. Doyle has been a great purchase and, along with Jarvis, have started to offer more going forward.

Everton are a different team that started the season, and without a congested treatment room to worry about they should be too strong for Wolves. Arteta and Pienaar will provide the service for Yakubu, and I fancy David Moyes’ side to win a tight encounter.

Burnley v Blackburn is hardly a fixture to get excited about. Burnley are desperate for points and Blackburn have a shocking away record. Blackburn were stubborn in their draw last week against Chelsea, and despite their woes on the road they should get a draw to send Burnley into deeper trouble.

Man City fans were promised the big time, and they are finally starting to believe it’s just around the corner despite their mid-week slip up against Everton. Wigan are capable of the occasional shock, but Mancini should be watching his City side breeze past them.

Tevez and Bellamy will be key, as they have been City’s star players this season. The weight of expectation must put pressure on a City side that has yet to prove anything, but it shouldn’t prevent them from taking three points, and put them a step further towards the holy grail that is the Champions League.



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