Fletch forsees tight title race

Published Nov. 18, 2010 1:15 p.m. ET

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.