Title fight going down to the wire


LONDON — It has been a good week for Chelsea without kicking a ball as it prepared for Saturday’s Premier League summit showdown at Manchester United.

Wayne Rooney’s ankle injury sustained in the 2-1 defeat at Bayern Munich means he will miss the game, while Arsenal’s challenge for the title has been hit by midweek injuries to Cesc Fabregas, Andriy Arshavin and William Gallas.

If Chelsea or United wins its remaining fixtures, it will be champion.

The best-case scenario for Arsenal would be a draw at Old Trafford with the Gunners pulling back to within two points on United by beating Wolves. Given the way the season has gone there is certain to be a twist or two in the final weeks.

Not since 1971-72 has there been three clubs battling for the title. Back then, on the final day, Derby (58 points) pipped Leeds (57), Liverpool (57) and Manchester City (57) for the old First Division championship.

Whether Chelsea, United and Arsenal will still be in with a chance of success on the last day of the season remains to be seen, but this is building up into a season to remember.

Sir Alex Ferguson, whose ring tone is Scotland The Brave, will not be particularly bothered that Rooney will be fit for England’s assault on the World Cup. The 34-goal striker has been absolutely magnificent this season in the wake of the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, but will miss not only Chelsea’s visit but the Champions League quarterfinal, second-leg match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday.

As his second season draws to a close, the jury is still out on Dimitar Berbatov whose undoubted skill is too often negated by the Bulgarian’s lack of urgency and work rate. Filling Rooney’s boots will either be the making of Berbatov or confirm the belief that he is no more than a frustrating bit part player.

Berbatov’s 12 goals in 36 games have mainly come against struggling teams — Burnley, Bolton, Hull, Sunderland and Wigan.

In fact, Berbatov has scored only one goal against another Big Four club since his move from Spurs — against Chelsea 15 months ago. He has to step up to the plate on Saturday against a Blues team that has scored 12 goals in its last two games.

The good news for United is that it has won all of the nine matches Rooney has missed this season.

With Andriy Arshav also injured Arsene Wenger will almost certainly unleash Theo Walcott from the start against in-form Wolves, a game the Gunners must win to stay in the title hunt.

Walcott came on with the Gunners trailing Barcelona 2-0 and his speed transformed the game, the 22-year-old the main reason the tie ended 2-2.

Walcott’s raw pace had Barca on the back foot and Wenger must use the winger from the start on Saturday and again on Tuesday at Nou Camp.

When Arshavin was injured against the European champions, Wenger sent on the more defensive Emmanuel Eboue, before finally replacing Bacary Sagna with Walcott in the 66th minute.

There is a belief that Walcott is more of an impact sub to run at tiring defenders than someone who can terrorize opponents from the start.

Wenger must have faith in Walcott’s precocious talent and at least give him the first 70 minutes rather than the final 20.

What is certain is that Walcott and his teammates will have to have the game of their lives if Arsenal is to overcome Barca at Nou Camp.

Ferguson said Barcelona “get you on a carousel and spin you dizzy,” and their football in the opening 45 minutes at Emirates Stadium was as near as football perfection as you could expect.

Barca will be without the suspended Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique on Tuesday, but Andres Iniesta will likely partner Xavi in midfield.

Neutrals can expect another masterpiece from the two best footballing teams in Europe, but it is always difficult to put up a credible argument as to how Barcelona will be beaten at home.

* * * * *

EVERY MANAGER would agree cheating should be eliminated from the sport.

Correction, they would agree it should be eliminated unless their team benefits.

When Blackburn Rovers beat Burnley 1-0, their goal came from a penalty scored by David Dunn after Martin Olsson dived to con referee Mike Dean.

Olsson, aware that Dean has awarded more penalties than any other Premier League referee this season, took his chances.

He said: “When I heard the whistle I thought I should get a yellow card, but at the same time it is up to the referee to decide in that situation.”

In an ideal world, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce would fine Olsson for cheating.

Can you imagine Big Sam’s reaction had Blackburn been the victims of a diver and it cost it three points?

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.