Following Manchester United's late collapse in last year's Premier League title race, I am reluctant to say this in anything more than a whisper, but.... I think we may have done it. With that in mind, I'm going to have a little look at why I think the title race is over for this season, and also how I think United have pulled of such a dominant lead with almost a third of the campaign still to run.
First for the why...
Being 12 points clear in the middle of February is obviously massively significant - only once has a Premier League club failed to win a title from so far ahead having played an equal number of games as their rival (Newcastle in 95-96) - but more importantly, Manchester City have a far trickier run of Premier League fixtures in the coming weeks than United do.
As Chelsea were beaten last week by a resurgent Newcastle, I wrote to an Arsenal supporting friend of mine to point out that the single Champions League qualification slot being fought over by his team, Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and possibly Swansea, had just been blown open to two places by the poor form of the current European Champions. In the aftermath of this weekend, there is a serious possibility that second place has also been put up for grabs.
In the remaining 12 fixtures of this Premier League season, City still have to play four of the chasing pack - Chelsea at home, Swansea, Spurs and Everton away - as well as having a trip to Old Trafford to contend with, while United have no team from the top nine to play - except the match with City at Old Trafford - until the last four games of the season, by which time one would suspect the title to be mathematically sealed.
There is little wonder that Sir Alex Ferguson changed his plans - with the midweek game at the Bernabéu in mind - for fielding a weaker side against Everton on Sunday to ensure that the psychological blow of a double figure points lead would be met. Had United capitulated against Everton, not only would it have left Mancini's squad with the belief that Manchester United were still likely to drop points, but it would also have sowed the seeds of doubt into the minds of a United squad who had failed to take full advantage of a two goal lead in the same fixture last season and effectively dropped the title into the waiting hands over at the Etihad.
Another important consideration that Ferguson may have had when selecting his team on Sunday, was the boost that such a clear lead in the league would have on his team. The home dressing room after Sunday's match will no doubt have been a massively positive place to be and the manager may well have felt that this psychological boost would be far more important to the team than an extra day's rest in the run up to the Champion's League clash with Real.
Now for the how...
Having a look at the league table, it is fairly clear to see that Manchester United have all but wrapped up the title thanks to the small number of draws they have had. Both Manchester clubs have only suffered a total of three losses so far this season, but United have managed to close out six more victories than their city rivals. In fact, they have a home record so strong, that the only points dropped at Old Trafford this season were in the loss to Tottenham in September. According to stats supremo's Opta, United have won more of their opening 26 games this season than any other team in the history of the English top flight, with the exception of Tottenham in 1960-61. Not bad at all for a team often derided for not being of particularly magnificent vintage.
The acquisition of Robin Van Persie has no doubt contributed to the success of this year's Manchester United squad, particularly as Ferguson seemed to have snatched his summer signing from the longing arms of Roberto Mancini, but to lay all of the credit at the Dutchman's sublime left foot is to deny the plaudits that the rest of the squad deserve for their performances this season. Michael Carrick has been instrumental to United's midfield and the progress of Tom Cleverly has been of no small significance. Patrice Evra - a man who had been seen as on the downward slope in his career - has burst back to form which, coupled with the development of Rafael at right back, has left the club with one of the top full-back pairings in the league. Inconsistency in the back four has perhaps left David De Gea a little vulnerable - and subject to unfair levels of criticism - but with the return of Vidic, the defence looks to be plugging the leaks that were present earlier in the season. In attack, a deliciously mobile Wayne Rooney has looked excellent and his partnership with Van Persie is blossoming into something rather wonderful, especially with the option that Hernandez provides, regularly being called upon to kill off a tiring opposition defence.
Supporters of other clubs may not look back on the Manchester United squad this season with the same admiration that they had for the treble winners of '99, or the latter years of Ronaldo's tenure with the Red Devils, but Manchester United fans will no doubt look back with pride on this years side. A side able to call upon the pain and disappointment of City's last gasp snatch of the 2011-12 and ensure that such a collapse doesn't - hopefully - happen again.