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Jitters could set in if champion-elect Man United fails to beat Stoke in Premier League

04/12/2013 09:23 EDT | Updated 06/12/2013 05:12 EDT
MANCHESTER, England - The English Premier League title is tantalizingly in reach for Manchester United, yet the jitters could begin to set in if the team fails to beat relegation-haunted Stoke on Sunday.

The anguish of its end-of-season meltdown last year, when Manchester City came from eight points down with six matches left to snatch the title from its fiercest rival, has been the driving force behind United's charge to a 20th league championship.

A repeat of that collapse is highly unlikely as United holds a 12-point advantage over City, but Alex Ferguson's side will be anxious to wrap the title up as quickly as possible this time round, especially after Monday's 2-1 loss in the derby on Monday.

"We have a job to do," a determined-looking Ferguson said on Friday. "The incentives are there for ourselves in the sense that we've only got seven games left.

"The challenge at the start of the season was to win the league back and at this moment in time our consistency has been brilliant. There is absolutely no other way you can look at it."

With City inactive in the league this weekend — it plays Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals on Sunday — United can restore that 15-point gap with a victory at Britannia Stadium, where the team has won on three of its last four visits.

However, Stoke isn't usually this desperate for points after slipping to within three points of the bottom three following a run of six winless games.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis, often credited for doing a good job with limited players since his appointment seven years ago, has suddenly come under fire, with particular criticism of the team's long-ball tactics that appear to have been found out this season.

"If I had an open checkbook and someone said you can have Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, people of that ilk, fine — they would suit my style brilliantly," Pulis said. "But we're Stoke City and we work within a budget we can afford.

"You don't just wake up one morning and say, 'We're changing our entire style of playing today.'"

Since a heartbreaking loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on March 5, United has won just two of five games and is looking to avoid a third straight loss after defeats to Chelsea in an FA Cup replay and then City.

United will be without Ashley Young for two weeks after the England winger limped off against City with an ankle injury but could have centre backs Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic available again after injury to deal with Stoke's physical game plan.

Arsenal can get a jump on Chelsea and Tottenham in the fight for Champions League qualification by beating Norwich at home, which would lift Arsene Wenger's team into third place. Tottenham has the weekend off and could drop to fifth, adding to the team's misery after going out of the Europa League on penalties on Thursday.

Wenger will be boosted by the return to fitness of key midfielders Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, who are likely to be recalled despite Arsenal being the form team in the league after winning six of its last seven matches.

While Tottenham goes through its traditional slump as the end of the season approaches, Arsenal just gets better and better as it looks to seal a 16th straight season in the Champions League.

"I believe our team has always developed a way to play that makes them stronger throughout the season," Wenger said. "That is maybe one of the consequences of it — that we go from strength to strength.

"We should not forget that, in recent seasons, we have started with young squads who have learnt first during the season, or with squads who have been disturbed because we sold players and we had to rebuild a team. Of course it takes a while to get into a good momentum."

Sixth-place Everton will stay in contention for the top four — and all but relegate Queens Park Rangers — by beating the next-to-last visitors at Goodison Park on Saturday.

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