Red Devils in hot pursuit

As bookmakers re-opened markets on the Premiership title, all the noises from Old Trafford suggested the odds of 7/1 available for MANCHESTER UNITED were worth at least a tickle, writes BRIAN LEE.

As bookmakers re-opened markets on the Barclays English Premier League title, all the noises from Old Trafford suggested the odds of 7/1 available for Manchester United were worth at least a tickle.

Chelsea backers were given a late Christmas present when bookies decided to pay out on the Stamford Bridge outfit just after the turn of the year — but recent events suggest they may have been a bit hasty.

After their 2-0 win against Arsenal at Old Trafford, Blues' closest challengers United are seven points adrift with five games remaining. Chelsea defeated West Ham 4-1 after being a goal behind.

United had narrowed the lead to seven the previous week when Ruud van Nistelrooy came off the bench to net his 150th goal for the club and condemn Bolton to their first home defeat in 22 matches. Birmingham held Chelsea to a goalless draw last week.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson expects a few more twists and turns and is adamant Van Nistelrooy, continually linked with a move to the continent, has a major part to play. The Scot said: "We knew he was going to get a goal for us because he is the best finisher in the game. Great players want to play, but this was probably the first time he agreed with me when I left him out. He played his first match in five weeks last week and having to play Bolton three days afterwards was not the ideal situation for him."

Although Ferguson acknowledges the gap to Chelsea is still wide, with his own side set to visit Stamford Bridge on April 29, Ferguson is adamant they could yet record the most sensational title success in their history.

He said: "We have asked a question of Chelsea. Everyone expected them to beat Birmingham and they didn't. They still have to come to Bolton and they still have to go to Blackburn. We have a big chance. We are catching them and we just hope the finishing line doesn't come too soon. I always say the important thing is how your form is in April. If it is good, you have a big chance. If you start to stutter, you can throw it away."

United stopped Arsenal, whose captain Thierry Henry was given much-needed rest by manager Arsene Wenger on the substitute bench before being brought on in the 70th minute.

The previous week, Wenger admitted his fellow Frenchman would be almost irreplaceable after the striker destroyed Aston Villa.

Henry scored two superb goals in a 5-0 win and tormented the visitors until he was substituted midway through the second half as Wenger began to prepare for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Juventus, which ended in a goalless draw ensuring the Gunners' progress to the semifinal.

Henry, whose contract expires in the summer of 2007, will announce before the World Cup whether he will stay at Arsenal next season — and Wenger remains confident he can keep his talisman.

"If you asked me to buy a better player, I would have a big problem," said Wenger. "He is the best. We do not know whether Thierry will stay or not. All I can say is that I want him to stay. The rest belongs to him, but I remain 100 per cent confident that we will keep him."

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