Title race resumes as Man United visits West Ham

Premier League leader Manchester United resumes its bid for a record 19th English title by returning to the scene of its heaviest defeat this season.

United was routed 4-0 by West Ham in the quarterfinals of the League Cup in November, one of only four defeats inflicted on the northwest team this entire campaign.

Alex Ferguson’s side returns to Upton Park on Saturday having arrested its recent slide and with captain and defensive rock Nemanja Vidic available again after a calf problem.

United still has injury problems to contend with at the back as it looks to consolidate a five-point lead over second-place Arsenal, which has a game in hand and hosts struggling Blackburn on Saturday.

Defenders Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea are all out, making United’s bid to emulate its treble-winning exploits of 1999 all the more harder.

"It is going to be more difficult than it was in 1999," Ferguson said. "We didn’t have the injuries we do now.

"There is a great desire to do it but we have so many injuries to defenders at present. We will never give in, though. No matter what happens, you always feel Manchester United will score in the last minute. We must have a chance (of winning the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) but it is more difficult than it has ever been."

Three defeats – to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea and Liverpool – in a five-game span in the league for United has brought Arsenal back in the title race.

Even reigning champion Chelsea, which is over its midseason slump and hasn’t been defeated since Feb. 6, could yet catch the top two. The London team is four points behind Arsenal in third.

Chelsea visits midtable Stoke on Saturday, with Spain striker Fernando Torres still searching for his first goal for the club since his move from Liverpool on Jan. 31 for 50 million pounds ($81 million).

Arsenal, which has let United off the hook by drawing its last two league matches, could give a second debut to 41-year-old goalkeeper Jens Lehmann at Emirates Stadium this weekend.

The former Germany international came out of retirement to rejoin the Gunners this month and played 90 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday. With current No. 1 Manuel Almunia under the microscope after making a mistake that led to one of West Bromwich Albion’s goals in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last time out, Lehmann could be handed the goalkeeper jersey.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is also awaiting a fitness bulletin on star striker Robin van Persie, who returned injured from international duty with the Netherlands.

Fourth-place Manchester City is at home to Sunderland and Tottenham, which is fifth and four points behind City with a game in hand, visits bottom side Wigan.

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish could welcome back captain Steven Gerrard after almost a month out with a groin injury when his sixth-place team plays West Brom away.

"I’m hoping to be in full training on Thursday and available for selection for the weekend," Gerrard said. "It’s up to Kenny whether he thinks I’m ready or not."

Liverpool is four points behind Tottenham and five points further back is Bolton, which is away to second-bottom Birmingham on Saturday. Other games that day see Everton host Aston Villa and Wolves go to Newcastle.

Fulham is at home to Blackpool in Sunday’s other match.

There are only six points separating 11th-place Newcastle with Wigan in a congested lower half of the table.