| SOLSKJAER: A more than able stand-in for Beckham
London: Manchester United and Arsenal will dust themselves down and resume their toe-to-toe title bout on Saturday with games against Blackburn Rovers and Middlesbrough, respectively.
Wednesday’s see-saw 2-2 draw between the two protagonists at Highbury resolved nothing, leaving United, on 71 points, three points ahead of the champions at the top but with only four games left to Arsenal’s five.
The bookmakers cannot separate the two sides but judging by the body language after Wednesday’s game, United manager Alex Ferguson thinks his side is in the driving seat.
Ferguson had a triumphal air as he walked around the pitch after the final whistle at Highbury, a sight that will no doubt have irked Arsenal fans.
But the fact remains that Arsenal, who have a goal difference that is already better by one, will almost certainly retain their title if they win all their remaining matches.
If Ferguson believes he is winning the mind games, Wenger is not impressed.
“We are exactly the same as before the game,” Wenger told reporters. “It’s open. Psychology is part of football but it doesn’t make the difference. It’s now down to the team which does more in the next few games and that’s quite interesting for you — and for me.”
Wenger has problems, though, with captain Patrick Vieira out of the trip to mid-table Middlesbrough and at least the next two weeks due to the inflamed right knee that forced him off after barely half-an-hour against United.
Centre back Sol Campbell is fit, but the Middlesbrough game, followed by the trip to Bolton Wanderers on April 26, could be his last of the season after his red card for elbowing United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Campbell will be banned for four games, including the FA Cup final against Southampton on May 17, unless he wins his appeal or referee Mark Halsey, who brandished the red card after consulting his linesman, reverses his decision.
Wenger, though, can take heart from the fact that his team has won its last four games against Middlesbrough, including a 2-0 success in the League at Highbury on December 21.
That game took place the day before United lost 0-1 at Blackburn, who visit Old Trafford on Saturday. Ferguson has a difficult balancing act selection-wise with Wednesday’s Champions League quarter final second leg against Real Madrid in mind.
United will be seeking to overturn a 1-3 first leg deficit against the European champions at Old Trafford.
Midfielder David Beckham, though fit, did not play against Arsenal and his replacement Solskjaer proved a more than able stand-in.
But Beckham and right back Gary Neville may return against the Rovers, with John O’Shea struggling to be fit.
Beckham may replace Nicky Butt in midfield, while in defence Mikael Silvestre will probably revert to the left flank, with Wes Brown partnering Rio Ferdinand in the centre.
Blackburn generally does better at Old Trafford against United than at Ewood Park, and they drew 1-1 there in the League Cup in January.
But United have hit their stride at the perfect time.
Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, with 37 goals this season in all competitions, is on fire and the team has mustered 18 strikes in their last six League games, of which they have won five and drawn one.
As on Wednesday, nothing will be decided by Saturday’s games. But a defeat for either side could well prove fatal to their title aspirations.
“I think points are going to be dropped yet,” warned Ferguson.
Meanwhile, Bolton Wanderers take on West Ham United in a relegation clash on Saturday that could prove fatal to the Londoners’ hopes of avoiding the drop.
Just three points separate the two sides, with West Ham occupying the third relegation slot on 32 points, ahead of West Bromwich Albion (21) and already-doomed Sunderland (19).
Bolton go into the game knowing that victory would all but seal their Premier League survival — with six points separating them from the Hammers with just four matches left.
For West Ham, the club long touted as being too good to go down, a draw is the bare minimum to avoid a calamitous fall from grace that would also trigger an exodus of their best players.
The England quartet of midfielders Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Trevor Sinclair, plus goalkeeper David James, are unlikely to stick around for first division football — no more so than Italian Paolo di Canio or French strike partner Frederic Kanoute.
Summing up the team’s plight, James told the club’s web site: “It is the proverbial six-pointer and we have got to win... it is as simple as that. “We have gone six games unbeaten, which is good, and we should use that confidence for the last five games.”
That recent improvement form enabled Glenn Roeder to win the manager of the month award for March and gave him added conviction that relegation could be avoided.
“What I have seen in the past five weeks gives me even more belief that we can achieve that goal, because of the resolve and the determination and courage the players have shown,” he said.
Relegation would be a particularly bitter pill for Roeder as the man ousted as his predecessor, Harry Redknapp, has just secured promotion with Portsmouth.
However, beating Bolton — and in the process whittling away at a seven-goal deficit in goal difference — will certainly not be an easy task.
Sam Allardyce’s men have also improved recently, winning three games on the trot before last weekend’s 0-1 defeat at Chelsea — their only goal conceded in the four games.