Wayne Rooney secures another vital three points for United
Manchester United’s somewhat unconvincing win against Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday was, nevertheless, sufficient to increase the distance between themselves and their apparently reluctant contenders for the 2012-13 Premier League Title.
It seems like it was ever thus in a season that has never allowed the top teams to consistently display their superiority and has thrown up some strange and unpredictable results that have, on occasions, thrown the form book out of the window.
A nine-point gap with 13 games to go would appear to be a healthy position for the Red Devils.
Factor in, firstly, that their only potentially dangerous away trip is to the Emirates and, secondly, that they are entertaining both their main contenders, City and Chelsea at Old Trafford, and the picture starts to look even rosier.
However, it seems we can take nothing for granted in a topsy-turvy season that, this week, has seen Chelsea throw away a two-goal lead in the last five minutes to lowly Reading and then lose all three points from a winning position against a rejuvenated but still sixth-from-bottom Newcastle.
United, despite a few pearls along the way, have laboured for long periods of matches but at least have, more often than not, managed to find a way to win their matches and create the considerable gap that now exists.
For long periods in many of their matches they have shown the class and ability to totally dominate their opponents but, all too frequently, have not translated this superiority into the goals that would kill off the opposition.
Easy to say. Not always so easy to put into practice.
In today’s sophisticated, tactics-ridden Premier League, with all the advanced technology and statistical analysis at their fingertips, teams are better-prepared and more streetwise than ever before.
Breaking down defences, even with the skill available at Old Trafford, has never been more difficult so perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical.
I wrote earlier in the season that one of the three main contenders will surely eventually strike a rich vein of form that will carry them away from their rivals, obviously hoping that that particular side would come from the red side of Manchester.
I am now beginning to think that maybe, this season, the current pattern of erratic performances will continue right up to the wire and that it is entirely possible that this year’s Champions will triumph to a background of nail-biting single-goal margins.
They say it is the mark of a true champion to dig in and never believe you are beaten, and United have always had this trait.
Of course, as we painfully remember, City demonstrated this characteristic last season when they clawed the title away from United at the 11th hour.
Somehow, however, this gene seems to be missing from the Blues this season.
History tells us that defending the Premier League title is never easy and, apart from United who have done it on countless occasions, only Chelsea in 2004-5 and 2005-6 have managed to achieve it.
City are obviously missing the Toure brothers who are at the Africa Cup of Nations and have suffered from the suspension and now injury to their influential captain Vincent Kompany, but they seem somewhat short of the almost arrogant confidence that led them to their title last year.
Perhaps the early exit from the Champions League shook their self belief.
I would think Sir Alex Ferguson will sleep well during this international week knowing his charges have put considerable daylight between themselves and their noisy neighbours.
I am not really even considering Chelsea as a threat any more.
Despite their undoubted mercurial midfield talents, they are too "flaky" for me and seem to lack the backbone for a fight when the chips are down.
Yes, Juan Mata and Frank Lampard may keep scoring incredible goals but where are they, or their fellow midfielders, when danger lurks at the other end?
All is not well at the Bridge, with a "white elephant" of a striker who seems to think that continually changing his hair style will lead to a sudden resurgence of form and a manager who appears to be so universally hated by the supporters that he must wonder whether the megabucks he is being paid to keep the manager's seat warm for someone else is really worth the aggro.
So, I am going to stick my neck out and say that it’s going to be United’s title and that, hopefully, they can finish the season with a little more of a consistent flourish than they have shown already.
Kiss of death?
Probably. But last season I kept saying that United wouldn’t win the title and look what happened!