London: A week may be a long time in football and if Manchester United take anything less than maximum points against Aston Villa this weekend it is going to feel like an eternity.
Last Sunday, pundits unanimously declared the Premier League title race to be over after Manchester City slumped to defeat at Arsenal, a loss which left Roberto Mancini’s men eight points adrift of United with six games left.
But United’s hitherto serene progress towards a 20th league crown was rudely interrupted in the form of a shock 1-0 defeat at Wigan in midweek, a reverse which cut their lead at the top of the table to five points.
Just as significantly, City’s thumping 4-0 win over West Brom means Mancini’s side have now taken a handy advantage over United in terms of goal difference.
With United still to face City at Eastlands on April 30, the Wigan loss means Sir Alex Ferguson’s side now have precious little margin for error — provided of course that Mancini’s side can keep on winning.
City have the opportunity to put pressure on United by cutting their lead to two points with victory at Norwich on Saturday, 24 hours before struggling Villa travel to Old Trafford.
United veteran Ryan Giggs has challenged his team-mates to prove that the Wigan result was a one-off, urging them not to let the loss play on their minds.
“We don’t have to get too down,” Giggs said.
“It has happened quite a bit this season where there has been the odd display where we just haven’t performed.
“The main thing is that we have recovered from it. That is what we have to do again.”
In United’s favour is that they now have back-to-back home matches against Villa and Everton, two sides with poor records at Old Trafford.
Villa’s injury list also means anything less than a victory for United will be a huge upset.
“It is important that we get six points from the next two games,” said Giggs.
“We are at Old Trafford, we are at home. We will be looking to win both games and put the pressure on.
“We have had poor performances throughout the season but we have always bounced back.”
Meanwhile City manager Mancini responded to United’s defeat on Wednesday by insisting that nothing had changed in the title race, adamant, in public at least, that his team’s championship hopes were over.
“United are a fantastic team and I don’t think they can lose five points,” Mancini said. “I fight always, every day, and also my team but now I think it is too late.
“I think they have fantastic spirit, United. We don’t have the same spirit and for this reason I think this is very difficult.”
But City will take encouragement from a swaggering demolition of Albion on Wednesday that evoked memories of their free-scoring early season form.
Carlos Tevez scored on his first start for the club since the dispute last September which has led to him missing virtually the entire season and could be back again to face Norwich.
With Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Everton all playing in the FA Cup semi-finals this weekend, the remainder of the Premier League action focuses on the grim fight for survival at the foot of the table.
Bottom club Wolves could find themselves effectively relegated if they are beaten at Sunderland, if QPR defeat West Brom at the Hawthorns and Wigan can conjure another upset at Arsenal on Monday.
That would leave Wolves 12 points adrift of safety with only four games remaining, but Wolves’ vastly inferior goal difference means they would need a miracle to survive the drop.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Norwich v Man City (1245), Sunderland v Wolves, Swansea v Blackburn, West Brom v QPR
Man Utd v Aston Villa (1500)
Arsenal v Wigan (1900)