It's Sir Alex v Arsene
It's the final stretch. Manchester United have extended their lead at the top of the English Premier League to seven points, but Arsenal—lurking in second place—have a game in hand. Who'll finish with the title? Let's take a look at some of the key factors that could sway the final destination of the Premier League trophy...
He'll still secretly think he's better off than Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp after Heurelho Gomes' woeful display against Real Madrid, but Arsene Wenger must be feeling just a touch surprised to have Jens Lehmann back between the posts. He made his first Arsenal appearance in three years against Blackpool last weekend as Manuel Almunia pulled out during the warm-up (whether through illness or injury depends on which reports you believe).
Though Arsenal managed an easy 3-1 victory at Bloomfield Road, you'd expect this week's forthcoming opponents Liverpool and Tottenham to prove a much sterner test—and Wenger will surely be hoping that Wojciech Szczesny is fully recovered from a dislocated finger, and that he doesn't have to call on Lehmann once again and make him the oldest-ever man to play for the club.
Wayne Rooney waves goodbye for a couple of matches
If you're going to get banned for a ridiculous display of obscene bad temper during a title run, then Wayne Rooney may have picked the best time to do it. Fulham proved no real opposition last weekend as United turned out comfortable 2-0 winners; and the second match of Rooney's ban will be Saturday's FA Cup semifinal against local rivals Manchester City.
Sure, it'd be nice to have him on hand at Wembley, but one can't help but think that Sir Alex Ferguson would much rather have him eligible for the Champions League semifinal against Schalke in a fortnight—and of course, the crunch fixture against Arsenal on May 1st.
Mark Hughes occupies an ambiguous place in Manchester footballing folklore now. Sure, he's a Manchester United legend, but as a former Manchester City manager he's got a bit of a question mark over his head. So when he enthused last weekend that United look set to win the treble, was it an endorsement or a bit of psychology?
"They could win everything. They are ticking games off and when you get to this stage of the season, they have been here, understand what needs to happen and what it takes."
Didn't think Thomas Vermaelen would be back before the end of the season? Nor did Arsene Wenger. But looks like he's making good progress after an Achilles tendon operation, though he's not yet back in full training. Johan Djourou is, though, having dislocated his shoulder at the start of March, and may well figure in Sunday's match against Liverpool.
Arsenal could be forgiven for being slightly distracted this week—Stan Kroenke launched a takeover bid for the club, having acquired a total of more than 62 percent of shares. Some fans expressed a concern that this might saddle them with yet more debt, but Kroenke's company has said that won't be the case.
Arsenal also announced this week that long-term fan and director Danny Fiszman, a pivotal player in the financing and building of the Emirates Stadium, died after a long illness, which perhaps puts the title race into perspective.
Manchester United, of course, are no strangers to off-the-field shenanigans, and though the anti-Glazer campaigns have been rather muted recently, some media reports have suggested that the holding company which owns the club has incurred large losses lately. It's doubtful that will affect either the stoic Sir Alex Ferguson or his players, though.
I find it hard to look beyond another title for Manchester United. Points in the bag are more valuable than games in hand; and even a victory for Arsenal in that extra game wouldn't pull them level with the leaders. Perhaps Arsene Wenger's best hope will be the pressure of expectation as United enter the final month of the season with three trophies still up for grabs—but basically it's out of his hands. A 19th League title for Manchester United is in the cards.