Commentary

Howard ready for clash at Old Trafford

Updated: April 22, 2011, 9:35 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

The topsy-turvy nature of the Premier League title race would lead some to believe that a final twist is on the way. Tim Howard doesn't think so. He expects his former club Manchester United to hold off onrushing Chelsea and fading Arsenal for a record 19th league crown.

"This is the money-making time, when they don't slip," Howard said of United in a phone interview Thursday. "It looks like they're going to have the steel and mettle to hold off the challenges."

But it's not like the longtime U.S. No. 1 won't be doing his best between the posts to delay what he suspects is the inevitable. Howard and his Everton teammates travel to Old Trafford -- mostly a Theatre of Nightmares for the Toffees -- on Saturday. United boasts the best home record in England's top tier, dropping a paltry two points in 16 games this season.

"You know you're going to be up against it, and you need your goalkeeper to do well to have any type of chance, so hopefully I'll be able to do that," Howard said.

Given that the clash is first up on the weekend, the Red Devils will enjoy an opportunity to stretch their lead to nine points over Chelsea and Arsenal, putting more pressure on both London sides with games running out. Chelsea hosts struggling West Ham, while on Sunday, Arsenal -- which has tied five of its past six matches -- visits Bolton.

Two months ago, the prospect of Everton taking anything from Saturday's game was slim to none. Avoiding relegation, rather than earning a spot in Europe, was the priority. But much as it did last season, the blue side of Mersey has put together a late-season surge and is the hottest team in the division, having won five and drawn two of its past seven games to move up to seventh, two points behind archrival Liverpool. Ironically, Reds fans will probably be rooting for Everton, hoping it can stall United's attempt to overtake Liverpool for overall league titles.

The timing of the streak is bizarre, as Everton has missed several key performers. Mikel Arteta, who pulls the strings in midfield, has been out since early March because of a hamstring injury; a foot problem has left Tim Cahill, one of the top headers around, on the sidelines since the middle of March; perennially crocked striker Louis Saha, like Howard a former Red Devil, and cult hero Marouane Fellaini are probably absent for the remainder of the season, both fresh off ankle surgery; and driving midfielder Steven Pienaar was sold to Tottenham in the January transfer window. Top midfield prospect Jack Rodwell, reportedly a United target, only recently returned from an ankle injury himself.

"We've basically just gone back to the basics," Howard said. "Because we've had some younger players come in, we've had to simplify a bit, and we've done a really good job. We would have liked to have caught fire earlier, but the league has been crazy -- the title race has been crazy, the relegation battle has been crazy and everything in between has been topsy-turvy."

Pienaar, Cahill and Arteta scored in September's dramatic 3-3 draw with United at Goodison Park, when the home team unbelievably netted twice in injury time. But earning points at Old Trafford remains difficult. Not since 1992 has Everton beaten United, and the past four league visits ended in defeat.

"It's never going to be an easy game against Everton because it's a local derby in a way, but our home record has been fantastic," United manager Alex Ferguson told reporters Friday.

Expect Ferguson to twin Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez up front, a stiff test for Howard and the back four anchored by central defender Phil Jagielka. Hernandez, who was brought into United last summer for 6 million pounds, will be looking to bounce back after an off night in Tuesday's 0-0 draw at Newcastle.

The Mexican failed to put away a chance from close range -- the kind of opportunity he hasn't been squandering -- uncharacteristically shot wildly from distance and was booked for a perceived dive in injury time.

Howard and Hernandez are sure to cross paths this summer at the Gold Cup. "It's been a breath of fresh air to see what his price tag is in relation to his production," Howard said. "He's playing like a 20 million-pound striker. He's been brilliant. He seems like a good kid who's eager to be successful. I'm hoping over the years we have more than one battle together."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

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