PREVIEW-Soccer-United keep eyes on prize as going gets tough

LONDON, March 17 Thu Mar 17, 2011 7:31am IST

LONDON, March 17 (Reuters) - If Manchester United win a record 19th English League title this season, nobody could accuse them of doing it the easy way after another week of setbacks including a touchline ban for manager Alex Ferguson.

The 69-year-old United coach will be in the dugout for the last time for five matches when United play Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Saturday (1500 GMT) in a possible rehearsal of the FA Cup final.

United, attempting to repeat the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble they won in 1999, are likely to be without defenders Rio Ferdinand and possibly Nemanja Vidic, as well as John O'Shea and Rafael da Silva who were injured in Tuesday's 2-1 Champions League win over Olympique Marseille.

Darren Fletcher, Michael Owen, Park Ji-sung, Anderson and Jonny Evans were all unavailable for the game and might not be ready to step in on Saturday.

On the plus side, Javier Hernandez continued to establish himself as a key player with both goals.

"He has adjusted to the physical part very well and he is lasting 90 minutes now," Ferguson said.

"His pace and movement is helping us. He is a real handful. You see the first goal tonight -- the boy's movement is fantastic."

CHASING PACK

Victory for United against a Bolton side they could meet in the Cup Final at Wembley would keep them at least three points ahead of the chasing pack, led by second-placed Arsenal who visit relegation-threatened West Bromwich Albion on Saturday (1500).

The other games affecting the title run-in feature third-placed Manchester City at improving Chelsea (Sunday 1600) and fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur hosting relegation-threatened West Ham United (Saturday 1245).

Victory for the champions at Stamford Bridge would move them above City and into third place for the first time for three months, while Spurs need to beat the Hammers to maintain their hopes of finishing in the top four.

This week's events typify Manchester United's curious season. They set a club-record unbeaten run of 29 league matches before losing 2-1 to Wolves on Feb. 5.

They have lost their last two league games to Chelsea and Liverpool and despite not playing particularly well have led the table since mid-December to stay on course to eclipse the record of 18 titles they share with Liverpool.

Despite the off-field ups and downs of their season, United continue to set the pace but they cannot let up for a moment.

Arsenal are breathing down their necks, three points behind with a game in hand after a dismal fortnight in which they have gone out of three competitions.

(Editing by Ed Osmond, To comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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