Premier League Title Race Run-In: Why Manchester United Will Outlast City
OK all you Manchester United haters (especially the City 'bitters'), you can have your moan about penalties not given in the Comments below.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will be reading about the juggernaut that is now rolling inexorably towards title Number 20 (with the worst United team for years?).
(By the way, this is what it looks like City supporters if you ever win the Premier League.)
I was at Monday night's win as usual and if it looked nervous on the telly, it was a whole lot worse in the stadium. Nevertheless, the OT support was the best for weeks in the first half. The Red Devils were very professional in that first 45 minutes and there was only one team in it until the last 10 minutes.
The passing and movement was outstanding early on against a team set up to frustrate. Unfortunately, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck all had off nights and the Fulham goal was clearly protected by an invisible light beam.
But the fact that it was so hard is exactly one of the reasons why United will now prevail—yet again. It was a poor performance in many respects, but they still ground out a result.
So that's where we'll start...
The Late Late Show
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The Norwich match summed up so many reasons why United will win the title this year. The winner was scored in injury time by the only player who will ever play over 900 games in the top tier.
That moment was pivotal in the title race. Imagine what it must have been like for City supporters in that instant.
Everybody knows that United don't know how to give in. That was their downfall at home against City—still trying to score while goals leaked at the other end. Even last night, Patrice Evra was in the opposition penalty area with two minutes to go, rather than organising things at the back.
Never say die.
United have 13 times this season scored in the last six minutes of a match—last season they did the same.
City have done it nine times, but United have been doing it for years. It's "squeaky bum time" for Fergie, the supporters and the rest of the world.
One Goal Wins
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Sir Alex is always stressing the importance of getting the second goal. Yet again, that was the problem on Monday. He was so animated that he ended up in Martin Jol's technical area.
And yet, United have 12 one-goal wins so far this season and eleven last year. City have only seven this year and what's more, they have won twelve by two goals or more. Impressive...
Well, yes. But City, who had a commanding lead last December, have failed to win five of their last twelve league matches. The pressure is beginning to tell.
United may not be playing their best, but they know how to hold onto a lead. They have won 19 of the last 20 matches where they scored first.
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After United were beaten at home 6-1 by City, they went on an unbeaten run of eight wins in nine matches.
That ended over Christmas by the shock double defeat by Newcastle and Blackburn. Stunned by these, United then went on an unbeaten run of nine wins in ten matches, which has not ended.
From City looking like they were going to run away with the title, United have persevered until they now lead by three points.
They have the momentum. City are wobbling.
They can come up with endless excuses, like Vincent Kompany being injured, or penalties not given, but the truth is United are in the driving seat.
The title is in United's hands to lose. If they win every other match and draw at the Etihad, they will still win by three points. If they have a four point lead when they play City, they could win the title there, on the day and receive it.
Unlikely. It's more likely to be presented at the home match against Swansea.
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Last season, United won only five matches in the Premier League. This time they have already won eleven.
Meanwhile, while City won seven matches away, they have only won two of their last nine. With United having the easier run-in, this is where they will win the title.
United Have Been Here Before
In the all-time Premier League table, United have almost 15 percent more points than their nearest rival, Arsenal, with an average of 2.12 per match. That is an extraordinary record of success.
Several times, they have also overhauled a lead, especially when catching Newcastle after Kevin Keegan's manic outburst.
Sir Alex is the past master at mind games and Patrick Vieira has naively just given him a load of ammunition.
Manchester United have won the Premier League twelve times out of nineteen. Nobody else comes close. Five times they have won it by five points or less. They know how to do it.
You will often hear Sir Alex talk about the last few months of the season being critical. As long as United are in touch, they will win it. The juggernaut is rolling.
City haven't won the top league in England for 44 years. Enough said.
Experience Is Everything
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When it comes down to the wire, experience will count for more than any other factor.
Apart from the fact that the United players know collectively all about winning trophies—and no one knows better than Sir Alex Ferguson—their individual appearances and trophy wins must give United the edge.
Manchester United's most experienced team from the current fit squad of players are:
De Gea, Evra, Ferdinand, Evans, Rafael, Giggs, Carrick, Scholes, Nani, Rooney and Berbatov.
Between them they have a total of 3,463 First Team appearances for Manchester United, at an average of 315 per man, equivalent to eight full Premier League seasons each.
Adding up the individual totals of trophies comes to 134, or 12 each.
For comparison, City's best and most experienced team of:
Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Richards, Milner, Barry, Toure, Silva, Tevez and Aguero, totals 1,047 appearances at an average of 95 per player.
But when it comes to the crunch, it is the manager's experience that will count most of all, as he makes the key decisions as to who to send out and who to substitute at critical moments.
Ferguson vs. Mancini
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Let's be clear here, Roberto Mancini is one of the top managers in Europe. But when it comes down to experience, Sir Alex Ferguson wins on every count—probably more than any other manager in the world.
Mancini has actually played in the Premier League—four times for Leicester City 11 years ago.
As a manager in Italy, he won nine major trophies and has of course won the FA Cup in England. The latter makes him the most successful City manager in almost four decades.
Sir Alex Ferguson not only knows how to win trophies, but he knows what "squeaky bum time" feels like, how to play the media, how to shield his players, motivate and get the best out of them.
And his experience is not just at Manchester United. In total, he has won an astonishing 47 trophies.
There are already signs that City are cracking under pressure. Patrick Vieira's ridiculous outburst about the desperation of recalling Paul Scholes was an extraordinary error of judgement. It gave Sir Alex a brilliant opportunity to riposte with the desperate decision to recall Carlos Tevez.
David Platt was also desperately defending City's performance against Stoke. The battle lines have been drawn and there can be only one winner on the last few weeks of the season.
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Apart from City on 30 April, United's most difficult opposition may prove to be former player Mark Hughes, or David Moyes' Everton—both at home.
United surely have the easier run in from here. They play:
Blackburn, QPR, Wigan, Villa, Everton, City, Swansea and Sunderland.
Whereas City play:
Sunderland, Arsenal, West Brom, Norwich, Wolves, United, Newcastle and QPR.
That looks like the more formidable list and the title race could even be over before 30 April.
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Michael Owen is back in training and Fergie has said how good it will be to have Owen available for the last few matches. Maybe even at the Etihad on 30 April.
Of course, City have the bragging rights at the moment. Figures can't lie. But United's implosion was no worse against Blackburn or Basel. City were simply more clinical—especially in the last few minutes when Evra and company completely lost the plot, going gung ho for a score.
Looking at results since City arrived back in the Premier League, there have been 29 matches, with United winning 17 and City only six. Even at home, City have won only four to United's eight. Overall, City have won only one of the last seven, to United's five.
So apart from referring to the comprehensive defeat at Old Trafford, City supporters might allude to the significance of the change in ownership.
The truth is, since they were first bought by overseas investors, with money invested, they have still only beaten United twice in the League.
When we take into account other matches, of course City nicked a win in the FA Cup semifinal last year.
But, United knocked them out of the League Cup over two legs the previous season and have beaten them both in the Community Shield and the FA Cup this year—the latter at the Etihad.
In the League, City's away form has not been great and they seem to be wobbling overall. Is the pressure beginning to tell?
And why is Patrick Vieira of all people trying to wind up United? What he is saying has backfired so far.
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If you read the press this week, only two players seem to matter—and both were recalled out of desperation!
Let's put the record straight for Vieira.
Paul Scholes asked to come out of retirement last Autumn, because he should never have retired. Yes, it's true United haven't replaced him—who could? But as the Fulham match showed, Ferguson will use him judiciously in the remainder of the season, as he will Rio Ferdinand.
Meanwhile, both Tevez and Mancini have had to swallow humble pie for the former's return. As Sir Alex made clear, he would never have recalled a player who went AWOL for months.
Nevertheless, as the Chelsea match showed, Tevez could be critical, even though he is not yet fit.
Anyone can do something special on the day, but the key players for United should be De Gea, Ferdinand, Valencia and Nani, Rooney, Carrick and Scholes.
For City, the past results show that it is critical to keep Kompany fit. Balotelli and Dzeko look to be on their way out, so apart from Tevez, Aguero and Silva should be key, but they are both showing signs of fatigue.
To pick one key player from each team would be Ya Ya Toure and Wayne Rooney.
Fitness and Freshness
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If Rooney keeps scoring goals and Kompany keeps stopping them, it'll be a fight to the finish.
Fitness has been critical this season.
For much of the last few months, United have had up to 11 players on the physio's table. But for that, they may well have been several points clear. Now, virtually all of the squad is fit. That gives Ferguson the sort of problem he likes to have.
Against Fulham, the bench included Berbatov, Hernandez, Smalling, Jones, Cleverley and Scholes. Enough said.
Yes, Vidic is missing for the season, but Sir Alex has marshalled his resources superbly, as he had to do last season in defence. Not only has he gotten players back from injury who have played less matches than their City counterparts, but also, he has been rotating the squad all season.
Although Mancini has more world class players to choose from, he has a smaller squad of Premier League standard players.
Silva has started 39 matches, Toure 35, Kompany 34, Lescott 33 and Aguero 32.
In comparison, at United, Rooney has started 33, Nani 30, Ferdinand 29, Carrick 28, Scholes 8 and Valencia 25.
Mancini has started 21 and played a total of 24 players in the Premier League, while Ferguson has started 26 and played 31. In total, Sir Alex has had up to 53 First Team squad players at his disposal compared to Mancini's 28.
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It is probably fair to say that, man for man, City supporters are louder and more consistent than United at home. However, when the United fans are in voice, they are, as Sir Alex says, a twelfth man.
Away from home, they are a match for each other, depending on how many tickets they are allocated.
But if the United faithful get their act together, they can drive the team over the line. Like Sir Alex, they've been there before, they know what needs to be done.
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Many believe that the City versus United match on 30 April will decide the Premier League.
But now that United have a three point lead, there is a different possible scenario. If they go to the Etihad stadium with a ten point lead, the title race is already over and the dilemma for the Premier League would be whether to present the trophy on the day.
That scenario is unlikely.
Much more likely is United arriving with a four point lead. If they won the match, should the trophy be presented there and then? By the same token, if they had a six point lead and drew, the same dilemma presents itself.
For the neutrals, the ideal is for that match to be the season decider. If it isn't and United win the title, they can reflect yet again on their ability to be stronger in the run-in. Mancini would be left to rue the loss of form in 2012.
Would he keep his job? At the start of the season, "the Project" apparent target was a Top 4 Finish. After having lead for most of the season, how would finishing with no trophy whatsoever be received?
A key difference between United and City is the conveyor belt of home-grown players coming through. City's draw has been the apparently unlimited funds available and the consequential transfer fees and salaries being paid for the very best.
With the FFP Rules coming into play, City are desperate for success and need to keep their top players, because they may not be able to offer such attractive financial incentives going forward.
It's not the available cash that is key, it's whether they can make a recurring profit, having lost almost £200 million last year.
Sir Alex meanwhile, would be rightly triumphant. He has spent far less. He has groomed more young players; he has made do with less world class players and, in Scholes and Giggs, he is getting blood out of a stone.
To win the title with what people call their worst squad for years—against City's 'Dream Team—would arguably be one of Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest triumphs.