Fletch forsees tight title race

A topsy-turvy Premier League took more unexpected twists last

weekend. Manchester United required one of their great escapes just

to secure a point from a trip to Aston Villa, Manchester City

failed to win on home soil, Liverpool lost again and Chelsea were

on the wrong end of the most surprising result as they were

hammered at home by Sunderland. Only north London duo Arsenal and

Tottenham emerged unscathed, giving the table a strange look so

early in the season. The teams at the top themselves may be the

elite few, but Chelsea, Arsenal and City have all lost three times,

while United, although remaining unbeaten, have drawn more matches

than they have won. It is a trend United midfielder Fletcher

believes will continue throughout the campaign as the gap between

the championship contenders and the rest becomes ever more narrow.

“The Premier League is tough,” said the Scotland captain. “We

experienced it last year. The standard has risen because the other

teams are getting better. “The battle for the top four used to be a

given. Now there are a lot more teams involved. “In general,

because the league is getting harder, there will be a lot more

points dropped than there have been in previous seasons. “I think

we are all expecting that.” It means the 90-point target that was

established by Jose Mourinho following his arrival at Chelsea may

no longer apply. What definitely does is the need to avoid that

dreaded phrase “catch-up”. As they trailed by two goals with just

10 minutes remaining at Villa Park last weekend, it looked like

being trotted out again by United, who already trailed Chelsea by

four points and the Londoners were about to have a game in hand.

The priceless nature of those two goals from Federico Macheda and

skipper Nemanja Vidic only became apparent 24 hours later as

Chelsea’s defence was ripped apart by Sunderland. It meant United

actually closed the gap to three points, even if they did drop a

place behind Arsene Wenger’s resurgent Gunners. Fletcher is now

demanding the Red Devils, who could have Wayne Rooney back to face

Wigan at Old Trafford on Saturday, make the most of their good

fortune. “There is still a long way to go,” he observed. “We are

not through Christmas yet, which is always a busy period for us.

“But we don’t want to give Chelsea too much of a lead because it

would start to become difficult to claw back. “Now it is important

we put a run of winning games together.” Sir Alex Ferguson, back

from his own trip to Qatar, will want to assess his charges before

finalising his first line-up of an important week in which United

hope to seal a place in the Champions League knock-out stage with a

game to spare by avoiding defeat to Rangers at Ibrox on Wednesday.

Chief among his concerns will be Rio Ferdinand, who came off at

half-time during England’s defeat to France at Wembley after

reporting a tight hamstring.