London: Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini insists it is too early to write off Manchester United despite the Premier League champions` latest setback.
United`s surprise 1-0 defeat at home to Everton on Wednesday left David Moyes`s men languishing in ninth place and trailing leaders Arsenal by 12 points.
It was another bitter blow in a troubled start to Moyes`s reign following his appointment as Alex Ferguson`s successor and left United`s hopes of retaining the title hanging by a slender thread.
United have already lost four times in the league this term after losing just five matches in the entire 38-game campaign last season, prompting some critics to claim the Scot is out of his depth at Old Trafford.
But Moyes received some unexpected sympathy from across Manchester on Friday as Pellegrini made it clear he believes his team`s arch rivals are still firmly in the title race.
"I think the fight for the Premier League is exactly the same. There are eight or nine teams that are very close in points," Pellegrini said.
"It is early. We have five more games to complete the first half of the season and then there is still all the second half.
"For us, it is very important to continue winning."
Meanwhile, Moyes remains convinced United can salvage a traumatic campaign if they get back on track against Newcastle at Old Trafford on Saturday.
"I am really disappointed but we go again, keep going and move on to the next game," Moyes told MUTV.
"That is the good thing here, there are always more games. We just didn`t reach the standards we would have hoped to (against Everton), but we have a chance to go again."
United`s struggles have added to the growing sense that Arsenal`s surge to the top of the table could be the prelude to a first English title for the Gunners since 2004.
Arsene Wenger`s side, 2-0 winners over Hull in midweek, are four points clear of second-placed Chelsea.
They face a tough test against United`s conquerers Everton at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday but Arsenal`s Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta says the Gunners` superb run of form has given them the belief they can last the pace.
"The difference to previous years is we are top of the league when by now we would be 10 or 12 points behind whoever was first before," he said.
"The confidence and atmosphere is different and we want to maintain that.
"Does it matter we don`t have the experience of winning the title before? No. As long as you have the quality, the ambition and togetherness that we have, I think we are in a good position to do it."
Chelsea travel to Stoke, with Frank Lampard warning his team-mates not to get complacent after back-to-back victories over Southampton and Sunderland.
Lampard, a scorer in the 4-3 midweek win at Sunderland, is pleased with Chelsea`s improvement after a rocky patch, but he said: "A lot of that is attitude and focus. We have got the squad, we have got the players, but we have to get ourselves up for every game.
"If we go up to Stoke with the wrong attitude we won`t win, so it`s up to us."
Pellegrini`s City, six points behind Arsenal in third place, travel to Southampton, who have slipped to eighth after three successive defeats.
City captain Vincent Kompany is hopeful a win at St Mary`s will signal the start of a charge for the title from the 2012 champions.
"Now we go to Southampton and if we beat them then all of a sudden we`ve a lot of things in our hands again," Kompany said.
Fourth-placed Liverpool, who host West Ham, look a strong contender to qualify for the Champions League after demolishing Norwich 5-1 in midweek and Reds midfielder Joe Allen says the scintillating form of Luis Suarez holds the key to their challenge.
Uruguay forward Suarez scored four times against Norwich and Allen said: "That was a masterclass. There are not many teams in the world who would be able to cope with that kind of performance."
Saturday (1400GMT unless stated)
Crystal Palace v Cardiff, Liverpool v West Ham, Manchester United v Newcastle (1245GMT), Southampton v Manchester City, Stoke v Chelsea, Sunderland v Tottenham (1730GMT), West Brom v Norwich
Arsenal v Everton (1600GMT), Fulham v Aston Villa (1330GMT)
Swansea v Hull (2000GMT)