Everton setback distant memory for rampant United

ROB HARRIS AP Sports Writer Published:

LONDON (AP) -- When Manchester United made a losing start to the season for the first time in eight years, it seemed to indicate just how tough it would be to regain the Premier League trophy.

But the record 19-time English champions face Everton again on Sunday now seemingly strolling toward another title success.

Alex Ferguson's side is nine points ahead of champion Manchester City with 13 matches to go, but United threw away an eight-point lead over its neighbor in the final six games last season.

United lost the title in May on goal difference, but would have emerged as champions had a 4-2 lead over Everton in April not been thrown away in the last seven minutes to draw.

"That was a bad blow for us and it cost us the league ... it was unexpected and we have to anticipate the unexpected in the run-in," Ferguson said Friday.

"The team is playing well, I'm pleased with their form and I'm pleased that the players we're changing around, when I'm making different team selections, are buying into it well."

Everton has remained in a position of strength since beating United in August, with David Moyes' side fifth in the standings.

"Everton are very experienced and, if you look at their record, they've only lost three games this season (the same as United)," Ferguson said. "They're obviously hard to beat."

And Moyes' impressive decade at Everton has made him a strong contender to eventually replace the 71-year-old Ferguson at Old Trafford.

"You don't survive 10 years in this game without making progress," Ferguson said. "His ability is obvious. Whether he gets in the top four doesn't change my opinion of him, or anyone else's."

A victory over United would boost Everton's prospects of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2005, with the team currently three points behind fourth-place Tottenham.

United will have to ensure its focus on Sunday is not on this season's Champions League and a last-16 match at Real Madrid on Wednesday.

United's biggest fan on Wednesday will be City manager Roberto Mancini.

City exited the Champions League in the group stage for the second successive season, and Mancini now hopes Europe will prove to be a distraction for United.

"It is normal when you play against Real Madrid in the Champions League you can lose your strength," Mancini said. "So I support Manchester United to go through in the Champions League."

City is at Southampton on Sunday, having slipped further behind United by losing its last two games.

"They have nine points more than us, but if we can recover eight points in six games, recovering nine in 13 games will be easy," Mancini said. "I never remember the title race being finished 10 or 13 games before the end.

"Three years ago Chelsea were nine points behind at one point. By the time they played at Old Trafford two or three games from the end, they were only three points behind. In the end, if Manchester United win all their games from now to the end of the season, they deserve to win. But I am sure we have another chance."

Chelsea doesn't, it seems.

Rafa Benitez's side is seven points behind City and 16 points adrift of United. Chelsea hosts Wigan on Saturday after Tottenham, which is just a point behind its London rival in fourth, plays Newcastle.

Chelsea collapsed at Newcastle last weekend to lose 3-2.

"We know the problems and we are working on the solutions," Benitez said. "The main thing is that you can score two goals, and then you are 2-0 up at halftime, then you have to finish the games.

"Against Newcastle we scored two goals, you cannot make these mistakes (to concede three). You have to make sure we control the game."

Wigan is embroiled in a relegation battle, although it is above of Aston Villa on goal difference and four points ahead of Queens Park Rangers in the drop zone.

QPR is at Swansea on Saturday, and Villa hosts West Ham the following day.

"We never speak about (relegation) to be honest. I think that's because of the belief we will get out of it," Villa manager Paul Lambert said. "Everyone is focused on getting out of it and we'll do that to the end.

"The spirit is good and that's testament to the players, even though we've had some heavy knocks. They've kept their heads up."

Also Saturday, Norwich hosts Fulham, Stoke takes on Reading and Arsenal is at Sunderland, while Liverpool takes on West Bromwich Albion in the Monday match.