United and Chelsea can warm up for Monday’s FA Cup clash with wins

Bill Esdaile
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FIXTURES are coming thick and fast for the top sides now and both Manchester United and Chelsea will have just a day’s rest before taking to the pitch on Monday to renew rivalry in their FA Cup replay.

Matches immediately following international breaks can often throw up surprise results. However, with both clubs’ players returning from World Cup qualifying duty none the worse, United and Chelsea look well-priced to take advantage of relatively straightforward games against Sunderland and Southampton respectively this Saturday.

United are as short as 1/500 to regain the Premier League, having opened up a 15-point lead at the top of the table, but you would be mistaken for assuming Sir Alex Ferguson thinks it’s job done. Having squandered an eight-point lead at a similar stage last season, there is no way the wily Scot will let his players take their foot off the gas.

Sunderland have largely been woeful this term. Martin O’Neill’s men have been overly reliant on Steven Fletcher for goals and have suffered a blow with the news the Scottish striker will miss the rest of the season through injury. The Black Cats are winless in seven,­ with four of those defeats, including reverses at the two bottom clubs, Queens Park Rangers and Reading.

The away win is a very presentable 4/6 with Coral as United march towards a 20th title.

Chelsea need to raise their game at St Mary’s as Southampton proved in convincingly beating Manchester City and Liverpool, holding Arsenal and Everton, and narrowly going down to United, that they are no mugs at home. Rafael Benitez’s side have been plagued with inconsistency this season but their away record reads well.

Only United and Tottenham have won more games on the road than the Blues and, with Frank Lampard continuing to bang in the goals as he closes in on Bobby Tambling’s goalscoring record for the west Londoners, they look big at evens with Coral.

Saints have lost just three of their last 10 matches but remain under threat of a quick return to the Championship. They were also battered 5-1 in the FA Cup here by Chelsea in January.

Looking ahead to Monday and United are the ones to be with. Their European exit really hurt and, despite Ferguson’s caution, the league appears all but wrapped up. This leaves the Red Devils to focus on winning a first FA Cup since 2004.

They let slip a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford in a rather wayward performance earlier this month, but are unbeaten in 90 minutes in eight versus Chelsea and have won two and drawn one of their last three at Stamford Bridge – outside the 5-4 extra-time League Cup defeat in October.

Chelsea have won six on the bounce at the Bridge, conceding just three goals, but have struggled against the bigger sides at home this term. They’ve failed to beat Liverpool, City and United and may just come unstuck facing a determined United team. Take the 7/4 with Coral about the visitors to win in normal time.

■ Pointers…
Manchester United at 4/6 with Coral
(v Sunderland)

Chelsea at evens with Coral (v Southampton)

Manchester United at 7/4 with Coral
(v Chelsea, Monday)