Football: Ferguson's men ready to party at the Palace: The race for the title and survival increases in intensity tonight

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The Independent Online
TWO races have developed at the top of the Premier League and the outcome of both could be shaped tonight. One is simple; the other is as complicated as qualifying for a rugby sevens final.

Manchester United, leading the first race at a gallop, need no recourse to log-tables or calculus: if they win their final three games, starting at Crystal Palace, the title will be theirs whatever Aston Villa achieve.

Here the second duel intervenes. If a rejuvenated Blackburn Rovers beat Villa at Ewood Park - a feat well within their capabilities - Kenny Dalglish's men are in with a song for Europe. This situation is full of variables. All Rovers require is: to win their two matches in hand on third- placed Norwich City (whose goal difference is woeful), match the Canaries for the remaining games, and hope Arsenal complete the cup double over Sheffield Wednesday, thus transfering the Uefa Cup place for lifting the Coca-Cola Cup to the team who finish third in the Premier League.

Norwich's Mike Walker, whose positive principles have made the new League more entertaining than many predicted, will hope Arsenal, but not Blackburn, rise to the equation.

The scene at the top is also coloured by the hopes and fears of those still enmeshed in the twilight zone. United's trip to the Eagles' lair is fraught with potential pitfalls even for a side so outwardly relaxed and in form as Alex Ferguson's. 'We are playing well but Palace have their own priorities,' the United manager said. 'They are desperate to stay up. But everybody here is looking forward to every game now - the players are really buzzing.'

Steve Coppell, who spent nine seasons as a United player trying in vain to secure the title, believes one victory will ensure Palace's safety. 'We all realise we have a massive test on our hands,' Coppell said. 'When they (United) are playing well they are undoubtedly the best team in the country. But if we can approach things right we can claim our greatest prize of the season.' Palace have a history of springing surprises - ask Liverpool - but such is United's self-belief, born of their effortlessly blended combination of skills and an ability to produce goals from every quarter, that Palace will need something special to take anything from the near 30,000- capacity sell-out confrontation.

Villa, who appear to have the more difficult assignment, are strengthened by the return from suspension of Shaun Teale, but Ron Atkinson knows the size of his team's task. 'Since Blackburn signed Kevin Gallacher they have rediscovered their best form,' the Villa manager said.

Both sides will go for the throat. 'It's no use Villa drawing at this stage of the season,' Dalglish said. 'They will be coming here for the win.' Having harvested maximum points from six of their last seven outings, Rovers have the impetus and (given the glimpse of Europe) the incentive to find a way past Mark Bosnich.

After their refreshing swig of Coca- Cola, Arsenal return to the bread and butter of the League with an opportunity to help condemn bottom-placed Nottingham Forest, who they knocked out of both cups, to the First Division. If Sheffield United prevail in their derby with Wednesday at Hillsborough, Forest's Premier League position will look untenable.