Another routine victory, this time over Reading, for Manchester United saw them go 15 points clear at the summit of the table and make it 537 minutes since they last conceded a goal in the Barclays Premier League. With Manchester City succumbing to Everton and Liverpool losing at Southampton it proved to be a wholly satisfying day for the Old Trafford club.
With the defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League round of sixteen still fresh in the memory, it was refreshing to see Sir Alex Ferguson’s side take a firm step towards regaining at least one title this season, with the replay against Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter final to come soon. The exit from European competition may have been a bitter pill to swallow, especially considering the winning goal came from the right boot of former Stretford End legend Cristiano Ronaldo, but the victory over Reading, and the relative comfort with which it was achieved goes some way to reassuring the fans of the club.
In a way, European glory seemed a rather hopeful matter when you consider the squad Ferguson has at his disposal. Although seemingly more than capable of regaining the Premier League crown, it is not a huge surprise the Champions League has eluded the Red Devils. Despite the acquisition of Robin van Persie, who has quite nicely helped fire the club towards an historic 20th league title, the side has an air of transition about it. The experienced and cultured figures of Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra and Rooney have been complemented by the emerging talents of Cleverley, Welbeck, Jones and Smalling, while previous fixtures in the first team, like Antonio Valencia and Nani have seen themselves marginalised over the course of the season.
With this switch from the traditionally favoured 4-4-2 to a more fluid 4-2-3-1 United have found themselves looking to different players to appropriate their means. In the extremely likely eventuality that the Premier League title returns to its perennial home in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, there are few Manchester United fans who would admit that the class of 2012/13 has been a ‘vintage’ side. Van Persie has added a lethality to the side, while Kagawa has been an excellent acquisition, but the centre of the midfield still remains an issue, as does the left full-back role.
Even though United were the recipients of some dreadful - and I mean f**king dreadful - refereeing, their departure from the Champions League was also down to their complete capitulation after the red card against Madrid. Even if they had made it through, there has been sufficient cause for concern this season to suggest the likes of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and, of course, FC Barcelona would have proven formidable opponents - perhaps too much so.
So, European glory may have passed Old Trafford by for another year, but the regaining of the Premier League crown will be a sweet moment indeed, especially in the style which it is being executed at City’s woeful expense. Added to that is the potential to - if United beat Chelsea - heap more misery on their noisy neighbours by dumping them out of the FA Cup. The sight of the world’s oldest cup competition is one that is sorely missed by Manchester United fans, having been forsaken a little in the hunt for European recognition in the last decade. A trip to Wembley is well within grasp and would more than atone for the disappointment on the continent.
With six clean sheets in as many Premier League games United are in excellent shape to continue their exploits on the domestic front. Ferdinand has returned to the England fold and his form has reflected his call-up: alongside Nemanja Vidic, he has granted solidity to the United line-up once more. De Gea looks much more confident in his game and having such a dependable centre-back pairing in front of him only seems to reinforce this.
Van Persie’s goal drought would be worrying if it was last season as Arsenal hadn’t the players to ensure goals during his dry patch, but with Rooney quietly adding to his season’s tally and with 18 different scorers in the Premier League thus far, the goal difference issue that hampered United in the title run-up last season is non-existent.
While Roberto Mancini continues to tinker at City in an attempt to claw back the deficit, often by reverting to his ill-fated three at the back system - one of which is bizarrely rampaging right-back Pablo Zabaleta - Ferguson continues to enthuse his side to play with an interchanging fluid philosophy going forward, whether that be in the 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 systems. Rooney, Van Persie, Kagawa, Welbeck and Hernandez provide a wealth of movement that is so difficult to track, no matter what combination starts a game, while Valencia, Young and Nani can offer genuine width when the occasion arises.
Ferguson’s side are traditionally recognised for their tireless box-to-box midfielders flanked by wingers who are intent on supplying balls into the box for the forward pairing, but equally as devastating has been the transition to the more central, interchangeable attacking play that has been favoured this season.
Whatever the occasion, United have the firepower to achieve their domestic goals, and with a fifteen point gap over second-placed City, it looks certain that title number 20 will be on its way with a few games to spare. The FA Cup would serve as a wonderful and nostalgic bonus too.