If you figured Fergie might play this one safe, you haven't been paying attention the last quarter of a century. And if you think the title is heading anywhere other than Old Trafford this spring, your name is Roberto Mancini.
Manchester United moved 12 points clear at the top of the English Premier League table on Sunday after a convincing 2-0 victory over Everton at Old Trafford. Mancini's Manchester City had lost stunningly the day before, falling 3-1 in an error-strewn shocker at Southampton, and United took full advantage.
Sir Alex Ferguson opted for an aggressive lineup, including both Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in his starting XI. The decision delivered the desired effect within the first 45 minutes as United romped to a 2-0 first-half lead through Ryan Giggs and van Persie.
The second half produced pockets of excitement, but if anything United looked the more likely to score the game's third goal. It was, in short, the sort of performance expected of champions, and if any other team hoists the Premier League trophy come May, there's a decent chance the apocalypse also will have happened.
Sir Alex Ferguson: "I was going to make more changes before City lost, but I thought it became a more important game for us then." #MUNEVE— Premier League (@premierleague) February 10, 2013
After a bright start from the visitors, United took the lead through Giggs in the 13th minute. Antonio Valencia headed on a long ball into the box, where van Persie turned and teed up Giggs. The ageless Welsh wonder finished smoothly, stroking the ball in off the near post beyond Everton keeper Tim Howard.
Van Persie took his turn in first-half stoppage time, setting himself up for a one-on-one with Howard with some typically clever movement behind Everton's defense. With a league-best 19th goal beckoning, van Persie worked his way around the sprawling American keeper and tucked an expert finish across the line past the covering John Heitinga.
At that, the match—and perhaps the title race—was all but over. With Everton beaten, the gap now stands at a dozen imposing points.
The symbolism shouldn't be discounted.
Last April, United and Everton drew 4-4 at Old Trafford in a match that eventually proved a turning point in United's failed title challenge. In that campaign, the Red Devils blew an eight-point lead over the season's final month, but a similar capitulation seems almost unthinkable this time, if not mathematically impossible.
Ferguson, who has brought unparalleled success to United in his 26 years on the job, remains haunted by last year's title run-in, and especially the Everton match (via The Guardian). One can almost feel his grim, intense determination when he says it won't happen this time.
"What I can say is that it won't happen again—or if it does, then put it this way, they will feel the full effect of the hairdryer," Ferguson said.
Hairdryer treatment aside, this sort of thing just isn't done (well, OK, maybe sometimes). Twelve-point leads don't tend to evaporate in the Premier League, unless, of course, it's United wielding the eraser.
Through 26 league matches, Manchester United have won an astonishing 21 times and built a daunting 12-point cushion on the rest of Premier League. None of it should come as any surprise. A wounded Ferguson and a motivated Manchester United have been an unrivaled force over the past quarter century in England.
The countdown is on for title No. 20.