All Manchester united at Ewood Park

These are strange days for the title race
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Those who worship at Old Trafford pray for a victory by the men from Maine Road about as often as a blue moon is seen over Stretford. Tonight, however, it really will be a case of Manchester united as City take their struggle to avoid relegation to Blackburn, the Premiership leaders.

United need a massive favour from their neighbours if Blackburn are not to edge closer to their first title since 1914. The champions also find themselves in the position of willing another away win at Ewood Park on Thursday for Crystal Palace, with whom their own relationship has been at best fractious this year.

Alex Ferguson, the United manager, will take heart from the fact that City and Palace desperately need points to beat the drop. Drawing at Leeds scarcely represented a failure on the part of Kenny Dalglish's side. Yet the manner in which a three-point return for Blackburn evaporated into one in the dying seconds gave Ferguson a chance to talk about their rivals "throwing points away".

A timely moment, then, for David Batty - the only member of Blackburn's squad with a championship medal - to make his first appearance of an injury- ravaged season. Tim Sherwood is suspended for the Palace fixture, so it would make sense for Batty to ease himself back in against City, if only as a substitute.

With United entertaining Chelsea this afternoon - and Lee Sharpe (groin) has joined Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis on Ferguson's injury list - Blackburn will be pleasantly surprised if they start with anything more than a three-point advantage.

Recent history offers hope for Dalglish, in that Chelsea did a double over United last season, Glenn Hoddle twice befuddling them with a tactical conundrum. And the European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-finalists are far from safe themselves, despite making Aston Villa their first victims in 13 home matches.

Brian Little, whose Villa side host Arsenal, articulated the fear of all managers between 11th and 20th place. "For a few days we've sat watching teams win and thinking they've turned the corner, but they can just as quickly lose a few and be back down there."

Villa have slipped back into trouble after winning just one of their last eight, and scoring only once - an own-goal at that - in six outings. The Villa full-backs, Alan Wright (ankle) and Gary Charles (sickness), are doubtful.

Fortunately for all seeking to survive, Norwich seem to be in free fall. They go to Tottenham on the back of five straight defeats, and the worst away record in the division apart from relegated Ipswich and Leicester.

Everton, sixth from bottom, would move to within a point of Sheffield Wednesday by beating them at Hillsborough. Joe Royle's side also have a match in hand plus three home games in eight days to follow. Daniel Amokachi (ankle) may be absent, so Duncan Ferguson, back after suspension, may resume his partnership with Paul Rideout.

The prospect of three Merseyside clubs in the top flight increased with victories by Everton and Tranmere on Good Friday. Birkenhead's finest - two points adrift of Middlesbrough in the First Division, having played a game less - may be meeting Derby at an opportune time, following reports of training-pitch altercations in the home camp.

While Middlesbrough tackle Sheffield United, third-placed Bolton play host to Sunderland, who are embroiled in a First Division relegation scrap almost as convoluted as the Premiership's. Their run-in includes games against Swindon (21st) and Burnley (22nd), both of whom have yet to be visited by 20th-placed Portsmouth.

The tussle for the Second Division's automatic promotion place is more clear-cut. The best-placed of the three contenders, Birmingham City, can regain the summit by winning at Cambridge this morning. In the Third, Carlisle will be champions if they overcome Hartlepool.

More football, pages 26 and 27