Man Utd out to protect PL lead at Fulham

Boosted by an impressive 4-0 Champions League triumph over AC

Milan, Manchester United now has to concentrate on staying on top

of the Premier League.

After Wayne Rooney took his goals tally for the season to 30

with two more against the Italian club, United has a home game

against a Fulham side which has won only one league game in 14 away

from home and should be confident of staying two points ahead of

Chelsea and Arsenal in the title race.

The down side for manager Alex Ferguson and his team is that

both rivals have comparatively easy games too. On Saturday, Chelsea

hosts West Ham and Arsenal visits next-to-last Hull.

The biggest danger to United could be the fitness of Rooney,

who has been hampered by a nagging knee injury which kept him out

of last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Wolves.

“His performance was a continuation of his form in the last

few months, just sensational and unbelievable,” Ferguson said.

“He’s still carrying a bit of an injury, nothing serious.”

Former United star David Beckham, on loan to Milan from the

Los Angeles Galaxy and Rooney’s teammate in the England squad, was

also impressed by the striker, who scored twice in the 3-2 first

leg victory in Milan.

“He’s such an exceptional talent,” Beckham said. “I think

without a doubt he’s one of the best, if not the best player at the

moment along with (Real Madrid’s Cristiano) Ronaldo and

(Barcelona’s Lionel) Messi.”

With Michael Owen sidelined for the rest of the season,

Ferguson has fewer chances to rest Rooney. With Wednesday’s game

against Milan virtually won, he took Rooney off and replaced him

with Dimitar Berbatov.

Longtime leader Chelsea slipped to second only because it was

involved in FA Cup action last weekend. But striker Didier Drogba,

who played a big part in the club winning back-to-back titles in

2005 and 06, is cautious about predicting another triumph.

“We are far from that,” he said Thursday, his 32nd birthday.

“We have lot of games coming and big games too so I don’t want to

bring bad luck by talking about if we win, but this season so far

has been really good for me.”

Like United, Arsenal comes off a big victory in Europe, a 5-0

crushing of FC Porto as it also captured a spot in the quarterfinal

of the Champions League.

After watching Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner squander easy

chances in last weekend’s 3-1 victory over Burnley, the Arsenal

fans were relieved to see him hit three goals against Porto in

their team’s all-round impressive performance which should also

build confidence for the Premier League campaign.

Although too far behind to be realistically in the title

race, the four teams behind have their own battle to capture fourth

spot, which means a shot at next season’s Champions League.

Tottenham holds fourth place going into a home game against

Blackburn on Saturday but is level on points with Manchester City,

which visits Sunderland on Sunday and has a game in hand.

Liverpool squandered a chance of going fourth when it tamely

lost 1-0 at Wigan on Monday and is a point behind having played a

game more. Rafa Benitez’ team doesn’t play its next league game

until Monday, however, when it hosts last place Portsmouth.

Lurking behind Liverpool is Aston Villa, which has four

points to make up on Tottenham but has played two games fewer.

Villa goes to Stoke which has proved tough to beat at home.

Down at the foot of the standings, Portsmouth looks all but

doomed, especially if it has nine points deducted for going into

administration.

Portsmouth already has five points to make up on three teams

who are level on 24 points and two of them, Burnley and Wolves,

meet on Saturday. The other, Hull, should struggle to get a point

out of Arsenal, even at home.

Just above the relegation zone, Bolton and Wigan also face

each other while Saturday’s other game is Birmingham at home to

Everton with both teams chasing spots in next season’s Europa

League.

In the race for promotion, Newcastle holds a six-point lead

and a game in hand on its two leading rivals in the League

Championship. Newcastle visits neighbor Middlesbrough on Saturday

while second place West Bromwich Albion welcomes Blackpool and

Nottingham Forest, which is eight points off the lead, goes to

Preston.