Liverpool prepare for unwanted central role in title battle

LONDON, April 30, 2010 (AFP) - The penultimate weekend of the Premier League campaign and the destiny of the trophy lies in Liverpool's hands -- just as so many predicted at the start of the season.

Only instead of being directly involved in the title tussle, Rafael Benitez's squad find themselves attempting to influence events at the summit from a base camp outside the top six.

It is far from the scenario envisaged after the Reds pushed Manchester United to the wire in last season's run-in and the frustration has been compounded by the way fate and the fixtures list have conspired to place them in a deeply uncomfortable position this weekend.

With a top four finish and a return to the Champions League still an outside possibility, Benitez's men are duty-bound to give their all in pursuit of a victory over Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday.

Atletico Madrid's players celebrate their knocking out Liverpool on away goals during their UEFA Europa League Semi Final second leg football match at Anfield, in Liverpool, England, on April 29, 2010. Atletico Madrid reached the Europa League final today when they defeated Liverpool in their semi-final on the away goals rule. AFP PHOTO

They will do so in the knowledge that even a draw will leave Manchester United as odds-on favourites to collect an unprecedented fourth consecutive title and, even more painfully, allow their biggest rivals to edge 19-18 ahead in terms of the total number of English league crowns won by the two clubs.

The situation has resulted in some Liverpool fans suggesting this week that they would rather lose than facilitate the delivery of a huge consignment of bragging rights to Old Trafford. But capitulation is not an option, according to club captain Steven Gerrard.

"We are underdogs for fourth position but our fans know that we have also got Everton breathing down our necks and we certainly don't want them finishing above us," the England midfielder said.

"We have got a couple of games left now and the idea is to take maximum points to see if we can get into fourth through the back door. If we take maximum points, who knows? The teams above us might slip up."

Although they will be without Fernando Torres, Liverpool's chances of a positive result have been bolstered by Gerrard's recent return to form.

United will know the outcome at Anfield by the time they kick off against Sunderland in a match that could see both Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney return from injuries.

A Chelsea victory could see them clinch the title if United go down to a defeat against a Sunderland side that was denied a victory at Old Trafford earlier in the season by a 93rd-minute equaliser.

But with only pride left to play for, it is hard to see Steve Bruce's side preventing a final day of drama on May 9, when Chelsea are at home to Wigan and United host Stoke.

For Ferguson, the build-up to the decisive weekend in the domestic season has been unusually quiet as a result of his squad's quarter-final elimination from the Champions League.

"Undoubtedly not being in the Champions League helps our preparation for the weekend but I know what I would rather have," said the Scot. "It's been agony watching the semi-finals on television.

"The ordeals of playing on a Wednesday and then a Saturday are exactly what you want here. We have got to have it."

The battle for fourth place and the final ticket to next season's Champions League meanwhile remains delicately poised.

Tottenham will expect to retain pole position in that particular battle by beating Bolton at White Hart Lane while hoping that Aston Villa take at least a point from their trip to Manchester City.

Hull's relegation, which was all but confirmed last weekend, will become a mathematical certainty if West Ham take a point at Fulham on Sunday or if they fail to take three points from their trip to Wigan on Monday.

Fixtures (1400 GMT kick-off unless stated)


Birmingham v Burnley (1145 GMT), Manchester City v Aston Villa, Portsmouth v Wolves, Stoke City v Everton, Tottenham v Bolton


Fulham v West Ham, Liverpool v Chelsea (1230 GMT), Sunderland v Manchester Utd (1500 GMT)


Blackburn v Arsenal (1600 GMT), Wigan v Hull (1330 GMT)

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