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By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Manchester City's grip on the Premier League trophy could be prised away once and for all this weekend as Roberto Mancini's side face Tottenham Hotspur knowing defeat would allow Manchester United the chance to be crowned champions on Monday.
A sense of inevitability has hung over the title race for several weeks but below it, the season is reaching a nerve-jangling climax both in the battle to qualify for next year's Champions League and to stay in the top flight.
City go to White Hart Lane 13 points behind United, who play Aston Villa at Old Trafford on Monday when the title race could be decided.
City would like nothing more than to prolong the title fight for another week, but that could be scuppered with Tottenham embroiled in a scrap with Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton for third and fourth places.
While City's pride is at stake, the repercussions of Sunday's match are likely to be far more serious for Spurs whose hopes of a top-four finish are under threat from their London rivals.
United top the table with 81 points, followed by City on 68, Chelsea 61, Arsenal 60, Spurs 58 and Everton 56. City, Spurs and Chelsea have played 32 games, all the rest 33.
Andre Villas-Boas's side were in pole position for third place a few weeks ago before defeats by Liverpool and Fulham and a home draw with Everton handed the initiative back to Arsenal and Chelsea.
Chelsea moved into third spot with a 3-0 win at Fulham on Wednesday to climb a point ahead of Arsenal, held to a 0-0 home draw by Everton on Tuesday.
Arsenal's Saturday kickoff at Fulham means they can apply more pressure before Chelsea go to Liverpool and Spurs play City.
Tottenham's players have had a breather since losing to Basel on penalties in the Europa League, although the break may not have been long enough for Welsh winger Gareth Bale to recover from the ankle injury he sustained in the first leg of the tie.
Without him and the injured Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe, Tottenham are a far less dangerous side and concern is mounting in north London that the club will suffer a near-miss for the second season in a row. They finished fourth last year but were denied a Champions League spot by Chelsea who finished sixth but won the European Cup to take their place.
Arsenal's draw with Everton offered encouragement for Spurs who, according to midfielder Lewis Holtby, face "six cup finals" between now and the end of the season.
"It will be a tremendous game on Sunday," he told Tottenham's website. "City have just reached the final of the FA Cup and these six games are our cup finals.
"They are a side full of quality players but we're determined to get three points, especially at home. It would be a massive win for us."
Everton (56) can move ahead of Tottenham, albeit having played two more games, with victory over Sunderland on Saturday - a match with ramifications at the top and bottom.
Sunderland moved three points clear of the relegation zone with a 3-0 win at Newcastle United last weekend - a match memorable for new manager Paolo Di Canio's celebratory knee slide at St James's Park.
The emotional Di Canio coming face to face with Everton's intense manager David Moyes is an intriguing prospect as is Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp taking on close friend Tony Pulis's Stoke City in a match that Rangers must win to keep their slim hopes of survival alive.
Along with bottom club Reading, who play Norwich City, QPR are 10 points adrift of 17th-placed Aston Villa.
Stoke, who have lost six of their last seven league games, are nose-diving towards the drop and defeat by QPR would increase the pressure on Pulis whose side begin the weekend just three points above 18th-placed Wigan Athletic who have played a game less than their fellow strugglers.
Wigan, whose annual fight against the drop has this season been interrupted by a run to the FA Cup final, face West Ham on Saturday and will be hoping to bounce back from their 1-0 defeat by City.
(Additional reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Ed Osmond)