LONDON, April 11 (Reuters) - A chastening home defeat to Manchester City has given Premier League leaders Manchester United all the incentive they need to win against Stoke City on Sunday and move closer to sealing a 20th English league title.
Champions City cut United’s lead to 12 points after Monday’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford, though with seven games remaining the Premier League trophy appears destined to be prised from their grasp by their neighbours.
City manager Roberto Mancini has already conceded the title to United but a fired-up Stoke, dragged into a relegation battle by a dismal run of form, will be desperate to take at least a point from Alex Ferguson’s men in the 1305 GMT kickoff.
If Mancini is already planning for next season, his City players have not quite given up hope that United might still slip up.
“In our dressing room, we think it is mathematically still possible,” said City midfielder James Milner, whose side face Chelsea in an FA Cup semi-final on Sunday.
“Hopefully we’ve put a bit of doubt in there. It could be a bit of a stumble. If this rocks them, then great,” he added in reference to Monday’s derby victory.
The loss was United’s first in the league since Nov. 17 and ended a run of six games without conceding a goal.
Ferguson promised his side would “have a go” on Sunday and have three wins and a draw from their last four trips since Stoke returned to the top flight.
Stoke, in 15th but only three points above the drop zone, have just one league win this year.
“With the supporters right behind us, the spirit of the club will take us through,” said goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
Sunderland sit one place above the drop zone and a highly-charged atmosphere is certain when they head a few miles north to take on bitter rivals Newcastle on Sunday (1100).
Sunderland are level on 31 points with 18th-placed Wigan Athletic and after a run of nine games without a win, new manager Paolo Di Canio has told his players they have to “fight a war” at St. James’ Park.
“I‘m looking forward to the game and every match we’re in now is a cup final,” said defender Danny Rose.
“I’ve heard from the staff and the lads that it’s a hostile atmosphere and I‘m looking forward to it. We shouldn’t be in this position but we have to try and forget about that and do our best over the next six games.”
On Saturday (1400) 16th-placed Aston Villa, on 33 points, host Fulham while bottom club Reading host Liverpool and second-last Queens Park Rangers travel to Everton, in what is swiftly becoming the pair’s last chance at a miraculous escape from relegation.
Arsenal can further unhinge Tottenham Hotspur’s pursuit of a top four spot knowing a victory at home to Norwich City (1400) on Saturday would lift them a point above their north London rivals into fourth. (Editing by Justin Palmer)