MANCHESTER United are now well placed to retain the Barclays Premier League title they won last season following their victory over Arsenal on Sunday and Chelseaâ€™s draw at home to Wigan the following day.
And with a two-legged semi-final against Barcelona to come in the Champions League, the prospect of a glorious Double is moving sharply into focus for Sir Alex Fergusonâ€™s side.
Â That dream is now just seven games from becoming reality, though fulfilling it will be a test of temperament and tenacity as well as talent.
In the Premier League, Monday nightâ€™s dropped points by Chelsea mean the Blues, Unitedâ€™s closest challengers, are now trailing the Red Devils by five points with four games remaining, and it would need a United collapse of major proportions for Chelsea to overhaul them. Indeed, Sir Alex Fergusonâ€™s side could be crowned champions at Stamford Bridge on April 26 when the two rivals meet.
The battle-hardened Ferguson remains cautious, aware that the race could yet involve further twists. â€œWiganâ€™s draw with Chelsea puts us in a good position but in my experience in life you donâ€™t take things for granted,â€ he said.Â
â€œWeâ€™ve got some difficult games ahead â€” Blackburn, West Ham, Chelsea and Wigan.â€
In a message no doubt intended to snuff out any tendency towards complacency among his troops, Ferguson added: â€œWe have three away games and one at home so we have to do a job. Because we have difficult games left, there is still a lot to play for and it could still go down to the wire.â€
Indeed it could, but the momentum is certainly with United now. Chelsea not only need to beat the Red Devils and win their other remaining games â€” at Everton on today, at Newcastle on May 5 and at home to Bolton on the final day of the season; they also need United to slip against one of their three other opponents â€” Rovers, West Ham or Wigan.Â It seems an unlikely scenario, though as Chelsea manager Avram Grant and several of his players have emphasised, it is still possible.
Unitedâ€™s position is further strengthened by a goal difference that is superior to Chelseaâ€™s by a massive 19 â€” reflecting Unitedâ€™s positive approach throughout the season.
They boast the Premier Leagueâ€™s tightest defence and its most prolific attack, and their goal difference of +54 is their reward for pursuing an expansive game built on a sound foundation at the back.
Their three main strikers alone â€” Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez â€” have scored 71 goals between them in all competitions, and 50 in the League, while their defence has conceded just 18 goals in 34 League games.
Chelsea are under great pressure now to beat Everton on Merseyside on Thursday night just to keep in touch with United. Victory for Grantâ€™s side at Goodison would cut the gap to two points but leave United with a game in hand, which they will play at Ewood Park on Saturday evening against a Blackburn Rovers side managed by one of Fergusonâ€™s protÃ©gÃ©s, Mark Hughes.
United and Chelsea have got arguably the strongest squads in the League, as reflected match by match in the depth of talent on their respective benches.
Yet while Grant has been criticised for the way he has utilised his resources â€” in terms of team selection and the introduction of substitutes â€” Ferguson has rotated his players to good effect. And with a five-point cushion he is in a position to rest some of his stars for particular games to keep them fresh for others.
That luxury has slipped away from Grant.
The significance of this is all the greater given that both managers have the additional challenge of trying to win the Champions League â€” with the first leg of the semi-finals looming next week and the second leg following a week later.
In between comes the potentially decisive Chelsea v United showdown.Â
In selecting his side to face Blackburn on Saturday, Ferguson could conceivably rest the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney, as he did against Roma recently, with an eye on Wednesdayâ€™s assignment at Camp Nou.
And depending on Chelseaâ€™s result at Goodison tomorrow and Unitedâ€™s at Ewood, Ferguson could even afford to rest some big names at Stamford Bridge (where a draw would suit United but be of little use to the Blues) in order to optimise Unitedâ€™s chances of getting past Barcelona and into Mayâ€™s Champions League final in Moscow.Â
Should they reach the final, United would meet either Chelsea again, or arch-rivals Liverpool. Barca, of course, will have plenty to say about that; but the point is that Unitedâ€™s lead in the Premier League has offered Ferguson selection options which could give the Red Devils an edge in the Champions League.
Although the Double is potentially on for United or Chelsea, Grant no longer has the same options as Ferguson.
The stakes over the next three weeks are massive. Ferguson has said that winning what would be his tenth Premiership title would be among the most satisfying of the lot because of the intensity of the competition this season from both Arsenal and Chelsea.
And common sense suggests that defending champions United already have one hand on the Premier League trophy now. â€” Goal.com.