After what transpired to be a routine victory for Manchester United over QPR, the result leaves the 12-time Premier League champions 15 points clear at the top of the table, with second-placed Manchester City’s game in hand coming against third-placed Chelsea. If the result goes in the London club’s favour then surely the gulf between the two Manchester clubs is beyond salvageable. Isn’t it?
Last season, when City snatched the title from under United’s nose in a tense conclusion to a thrilling season, it was the first time in recent memory that a team beneath Sir Alex Ferguson’s stewardship had thrown away a lead at the summit of the table. Usually, teams find themselves looking nervously over their shoulders as the big red monster slowly chews up the ground post-Christmas. However, with the bitter taste of defeat comes the resolve to not let it happen again.
City humbled United at Old Trafford, beat them again at the Etihad to secure the double, then completed the embarrassment when they were crowned Premiership champions.
They were favourites to retain the title at the beginning of the season after adding the precocious young duo of Jack Rodwell and Matija Nastasić, but poor individual performances, continued in-fighting and a lack of desire have seen them unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage and trail their neighbours by a near-unassailable margin.
There are eleven fixtures to go in the league calendar and United sit a pretty 15 points clear, a margin that could be consolidated by this evening, and many fans and pundits are far from tentative in their proclamations that the trophy will be going back to Old Trafford at the end of the season.
Ferguson’s men still have to face Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, but not before they navigate the rather easier run of Norwich, West Ham, Reading and Sunderland: if they take a maximum twelve points, the race could be practically over before they welcome their rivals to the Theatre of Dreams with just seven games remaining.
With the form United have been in, you wouldn’t bet against them taking a hefty haul of points over the ensuing Premier League fixtures whilst still keeping their footing in the Champions League and FA Cup. Squad rotation of late has eased the mounting pressure on senior players and the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nani and Ashley Young came into the side against QPR and helped secure the victory.
Another Premier League medal would take Giggs’ tally to 13 championships in his incredible career, and the decorated Welshman looked comfortable against Harry Redknapp’s side. The bigger games seem to be increasingly beyond the 39-year-old in his waning years, but the United stalwart ran the game against the struggling London side and grabbed his second league goal of the campaign in style.
What United are achieving compared to City this season is their ability to win under two conditions: 1) when they’re not playing well and; 2) when they’re fielding an ‘under strength’ side. Roberto Mancini’s men have dropped points when they’ve rotated, with the likes of Samir Nasri, Javi García and Carlos Tevez amongst others looking uninspired.
Such is the foolery that exists in the Manchester City camp that the enigma-cum-farce, Mario Balotelli, grabbed most of the headlines before his departure to Milan, while the team around him were beyond lacklustre in their performances. Even dependable figures like Joe Hart have been well below the standards expected of them, while David Silva and Yaya Touré, though good, haven’t quite scaled the heights of last season.
In contrast, a Manchester United side that was rightly chastised for their defensive frailties earlier in the season have kept three clean sheets in as many Premier League games, thanks in part to the return of Nemanja Vidić and the resurgence of David De Gea after a number of shaky showings at the back end of 2012.
The young Spaniard has looked far more assured between the posts, and though his aerial ability still needs work, his reflexes, handling and sheer ingenuity are continually sound, and far beyond his years. Vidić, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand appear like they had never been apart in recent games, while the right-back berth is being hotly contested between Rafael and Phil Jones, with the former having a blinder against QPR.
It would be arrogant to simply assume Manchester United will walk their way to the title because they still have some tough fixtures to contend with, not least the 8th of April battle with Manchester City, a game which could – again – decide the destination of the Premier League title: tellingly, six games earlier than last season.
However, Ferguson’s side are starting to look extremely comfortable at the summit. Understandably, the staff and players have one eye on the return fixture against Real Madrid on the 5th of March, as well as some of their focus commanded by the quarter final FA Cup tie – a competition which they haven’t won in almost ten years – but despite this they still appear focused on regaining ‘their’ crown.
QPR, battling for their lives at the foot of the table, rarely troubled the United back four, while Robin van Persie and Javier Hernández were both denied, and the game really seemed to only be heading towards one outcome. It wasn’t classic United, but then, not playing fantastically and still winning has become a hallmark of sorts for the club.
The players keep fulfilling their roles and getting the victories, and if Manchester City slip up against a Chelsea side hot on their heels, then Sir Alex can rest even easier as he prepares his team for the titanic showdown with José Mourinho’s galacticos in two weeks’ time.
It would be fantastic to see the club driving steadily towards their 20th league title while still keeping hopes alive for a second historic treble: a long shot, granted, especially if you juxtapose the players in this current squad with those of ’99, as well as consider the wealth of quality that is still well and truly alive in the Champions League. But, as the game against QPR demonstrated on a much smaller scale, if Manchester United simply defend well and continue to create chances with their plethora of attacking prowess, then anything is possible.