Football: D-day for Ferguson's extra-time appeal

Ian Ridley examines the threat of fixture congestion to the champions
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The Independent Online
Manchester United's chances of retaining the championship could hinge on a meeting of Premiership club chairmen in London on Thursday. On the agenda will be a proposal to extend the season beyond the present last date of Sunday 11 May.

The United manager Alex Ferguson has called for an extension as his side's run to the semi-finals of the European Cup has left them with a fixture pile-up that could mean them playing four league matches in nine days. Whether the rest of the Premiership will look sympathetically on Manchester United remains to be seen. "Negotiations are in progress," said a Premier League spokesman. "It will depend on the chairmen's vote."

United's first leg against Borussia Dortmund on 9 April means that their scheduled match that night against Newcastle at Old Trafford has been postponed. On United's only free midweek left, 16 April, Newcastle have already rescheduled a match against Chelsea. Newcastle were willing to re-arrange that if Chelsea could in turn reschedule a match against Coventry City. Coventry apparently declined. Complicated enough?

The next midweek, meanwhile, has United in the second leg against Dortmund and the one after that sees England playing Georgia at Wembley in a World Cup qualifying match. In the final week of the season, United play Leicester City on Saturday 3 May, Middlesbrough the next Wednesday and West Ham the following Sunday fearing that the Newcastle match may have to be accommodated on Friday 9 May. There was a suggestion that Middlesbrough bring forward their game against United to 16 April but they have since re-arranged a game for that night - the notorious one at Blackburn.

The worry for United is the memory of five years ago when they collapsed amid a similar programme, conceding the title to Leeds United. On 18 April 1992, they were two points clear with a game in hand. Nine days later, they had taken only one point from matches against Luton, Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Liverpool. Leeds, who won two and drew another in that week, were champions.

It was the last season before the birth of the Premier League, who had said, Ferguson insists, that such a situation would not be allowed again. His team have grown and learnt much from that title run-in, winning three of the four subsequent championships, but clearly do not want to put to a similar test their now finely honed experience and resolve in championship denouements.

A ridiculous irony of the feast of end-of-season fixtures is that it follows the famine of this Easter weekend, traditionally a time for title- turning points. With Uefa having expanded their club competitions and Fifa increasing international dates - hence yesterday's and this coming midweek's matches - the problem is likely to be repeated in the future. It is why the governing bodies are pressuring domestic associations to downsize further their leagues, a move the English game is resisting after already decreasing the Premiership to 20 clubs.

When title matters do resume next weekend, United have the opportunity again to go six points clear on Saturday with Derby County the visitors, Liverpool left to play catch-up once more with Coventry City coming to Anfield the following day.

Last Monday's victory over Arsenal will have done much to further Liverpool's belief that they can win the championship, cementing for their superficially more difficult run-in the feeling that they perform better against the less scrappy teams in the top half of the table. They did much to answer the criticisms, which they may have sensed about themselves, of flimsiness under pressure and lack of ruthlessness when imposing it.

With Liverpool also in the semi-finals of European competition, against Paris St Germain in the Cup-winners' Cup a week on Thursday, it should in theory be a level playing field for the top two, who meet at Anfield on the morning of Saturday 19 April.

That should be an epic contest which should say much about the destination of the title, though even defeat for Liverpool may not settle it, with United's thoroughbreds potentially being asked to run over those last- week hurdles. Matters off the field, in the shape of the Premiership's attitude to United at its meeting in London, will also have a considerable bearing.