Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has spoken of a feeling that this title race will go to the wire but, on paper, the trophy looks Chelsea's this morning.
The fixture United will be looking to in hope of salvation is the London side's journey to Anfield on 1 May. A draw at Liverpool would see the two title challengers level on points, though the recent 7-1 defeat of Aston Villa gives Carlo Ancelotti's side a superior goal difference – of four – too. Ancelotti can afford to draw there, win his other four games and the title would be heading to Stamford Bridge.
A Chelsea defeat at Anfield seems the minimum requirement for Ferguson. The outlook worsened for him yesterday, though, as Liverpool's failure to overcome Birmingham City left their hopes of a top-four place looking forlorn. If they are still chasing a Champions League position when Chelsea swing into town, many would back Rafael Benitez's side to beat them. Liverpool have delivered on many of the big occasions this season and are formidable at home. But if a Europa League spot is the best they can achieve, will there be the same hunger to deliver a win that would enable Ferguson to do what he has always said he will do – and surpass their 18 titles with United?
The desire to see Rooney return owes as much to league games as to the second leg in the Champions League against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. Ewood Park, where United travel on Sunday, has not posed the same threat of late as it did when Mark Hughes was manager there but Blackburn have not lost at home in the league since December.
A win would put United top, with Chelsea in FA Cup action. Anything less would put United under huge pressure ahead of the Manchester derby a week next Saturday. Rooney is due to be back by then but after the passions of the Carling Cup semi-final, who knows what the game at Eastlands could hold? Chelsea, meanwhile, have one other away game, at Tottenham. The painful truth for Ferguson is that after all these years, Liverpool still hold the cards.