Soccer: Sir Alex sets sights on overall points record

Manchester City conceded defeat in the English Premier League soccer title race while runaway leaders Manchester United are switching their focus to the pursuit of records and the preservation of freshness in their squad.

United visit Sunderland tomorrow, when victory would provisionally take them a massive 18 points clear of second-place City, who host Newcastle United later in the day and whose manager, Roberto Mancini, accepts United can no longer be caught.

Eighteen points is the record margin by which United won the title from Arsenal in 2000, while manager Alex Ferguson has spoken of eclipsing Chelsea's unprecedented haul of 95 points from the 2004-05 campaign.

United are also out to gain revenge for the exuberant celebrations of Sunderland's fans after Ferguson's men lost out on the title to City at the Stadium of Light on the final day of last season. However, thoughts of both vengeance and the history books must be weighed against the need to retain focus for Tuesday's FA Cup quarter-final replay at Chelsea.

With such a short turnover between the games, and in the immediate aftermath of the international break, Ferguson has given a strong hint that he will make changes for the visit of Martin O'Neill's side.

"Every coach is praying that their players come back fit [from international duty]," said Ferguson.

"I have to make sure I have some freshness in the team because we also have Chelsea on [Tuesday].

"It is a big ask for our squad and something we need to concentrate on because I need to make sure I pick the right teams."

The resumption of the league programme sees City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Everton resume their five-way battle for the three Champions League places below United. Chelsea, four points off City in third place, visit Southampton tomorrow, while fourth-place Spurs are at Swansea City and fifth-place Arsenal host second-bottom Reading.

Everton, two points behind Arsenal in sixth, tackle Stoke City.

Spurs' momentum has begun to ebb in recent weeks, following consecutive defeats by Liverpool and Fulham, and Arsenal are now only four points behind their local rivals with a game in hand. Arsene Wenger's men, however, will once again be without Jack Wilshere, who has an ankle injury, while the injury-prone Abou Diaby has been ruled out for up to nine months with knee ligament damage.

Arsenal are also likely to encounter a Reading side invigorated by the mid-week appointment of manager Nigel Adkins, who has eight games to bridge the seven-point gap that currently separates the club from safety.

Third-bottom Wigan Athletic preserved the three-point gap that separates them from the teams above the drop zone with a last-gasp 2-1 win at home to Newcastle last time out.

Roberto Martinez's side, who also have a game in hand, host Norwich City tomorrow and victory will lift them out of the relegation zone at the expense of Aston Villa, who do not welcome Liverpool to Villa Park until Monday.AAP

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