Football: Blackburn enter the last chance saloon: Trevor Haylett on the title and relegation issues that could be settled this weekend

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER long league season comes down to its last long weekend and the conclusion of Blackburn's long-lasting pursuit. Maybe. If Manchester United defeat Ipswich tomorrow then Rovers would need to win at Coventry on Monday to stall for a few more days an outcome which had long since seemed inevitable.

Praise be to Blackburn for extending the fight all the way to the wire and for sustaining an interest in the Premiership prize, which had seemed destined for Old Trafford in January when United stood 16 points clear.

Now only a couple of points separate them but surely that is two too many because United have one extra game remaining and crucially they have their favourite Frenchman back. When Eric Cantona comes out to play so do the rest wearing the dynamic red. Vive la difference.

True to form, Alex Ferguson is warning his champions-elect to prepare for a tough examination at Portman Road because Ipswich are 'fighting for their lives'. They have been, or should have been, for a few weeks now since relegation's icy grip first caught them around the neck and dragged them further and further into trouble.

Yet Ipswich seem incapable of helping themselves. They have not won in nine games and have taken only three points in that period. They finish at Ewood Park.

Ferguson, who rates Paul Ince extremely doubtful with a groin injury, has urged his team to turn back the clock 12 months to ensure they claim their just rewards in style. 'We must go out and really show what made us champions last year and then we can claim it again this season,' he said.

The fear of the two remaining relegation places and the financial fallout that accompanies the dreaded drop is dominating the thoughts this weekend of the six clubs immediately above Swindon. To secure themselves against a nervy final few days Tottenham need to take something away from Wimbledon. If John Fashanu succumbs to back and leg injuries, that would take some of the heat from the fixture which is a painful reminder to Gary Mabbutt. When the sides last met, he caught the macho man's elbow and suffered horrific facial injuries.

After four successive defeats, Oldham begin a run of three home games which, followed by their last- afternoon visit to Norwich, presents a sapping schedule over eight days. Time looks to be against Joe Royle's doughty battlers this time round.

Sheffield United are looking up after back-to-back wins on their travels, although Newcastle are going flat out for the third place which could bring qualification for Europe. With Matthew Le Tissier returning after suspension alongside Iain Dowie and Francis Benali, Southampton remain optimistic and can do themselves a power of good against Aston Villa where Paul McGrath is not alone in losing interest in the finish to the campaign. Still Everton remain vulnerable, two difficult hurdles for them to overcome at Leeds today and at home to Wimbledon.

As for those who will step up, Crystal Palace can start calling themselves champions if they avoid defeat at Middlesbrough tomorrow. Nottingham Forest will make it two for the return ticket one year after dropping down providing they win at Peterborough. One point will suffice if Leicester fail to beat Stoke.

The First Division play-off places continue to be an intriguing competition in their own right. Tranmere will book their place if they win at Sunderland and Wolves fail to beat Barnsley. In the Second, Reading will be champions if they overcome Brighton at Elm Park, while, in the Third, Wycombe's debut League season will end in promotion if they win at Crewe and Preston drop points at home to Carlisle.

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