Six hurdles left for Manchester United

It is hardly the triumphant gallop to an 18th league title Manchester United were expecting a few weeks ago, rather they are grinding their way towards the finishing tape like a racehorse in heavy going.

A 2-0 victory over Portsmouth last night lacked the polish and dazzle United fans have come to expect and they trooped away satisfied but not electrified, another three points ticked off.

It will not worry manager Alex Ferguson, however. For him, all that matters is that United negotiate the next six league games without any hiccups, starting at home to a buoyant Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.

"That's another game gone and we are in a better position now than we were on Monday," Ferguson said after goals from Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick put his side three points clear of Liverpool, who drew 4-4 with Arsenal on Tuesday.

"We had a little warning tonight and hopefully they will learn from that."

Liverpool are away at Hull City on Saturday, a match that will finish before United begin against Tottenham so they could again find themselves below their rivals on goal difference.

However, United have proved masters at title run-ins over the years and few would bet against them at this stage, especially as they appear to have emerged from March's mini-slump when they lost to Liverpool and Fulham.

They should have Wes Brown back in contention against Spurs which is a huge boost after Gary Neville and John O'Shea both hobbled off against Portsmouth on Wednesday.

Liverpool will need no reminding of their first meeting with Hull this year. They trailed 2-0 to the Premier League new boys in December before scraping a 2-2 draw - one of numerous draws against lesser clubs that look like costing them the title.

The 4-4 extravaganza with Arsenal on Tuesday was damaging, but if they fail to end their near 20-year wait for an English title this season it is the draws with Hull, Fulham, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic that will keep Rafael Benitez awake at night.

Hull manager Phil Brown, on the other hand, will look back at that clash at Anfield as the last bright spot in a season that has gone horribly wrong. They have won just once in the league since then and are heading for the drop zone at an alarming rate.

The topsy-turvy, unpredictable nature of the Premier League could have some more shocks left this season, though and Brown believes his side can stay above the bottom three.

"We're still outside the bottom three and before the season everybody had us down to finish 20th," Brown told the club's website. "I still think we can scrap for the points we need.

"We have the belief that we can get back to the form we were showing earlier in the season."

Chelsea and Arsenal are also in action at the weekend, although their title challenges are effectively over.

Chelsea, six points behind United in third place having played a game more, face West Ham United while Arsenal, who are 12 points adrift of Ferguson's team, host Middlesbrough.

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