After five months sitting relatively unchallenged in second place – and I say unchallenged because despite Spurs’s best efforts, it’s not too surprising to see them dropping off – United have returned to the summit of English football with just over a quarter of the season left.
A post-match piece from the Wast Brom game would read something like this: Long spells of dominance and exciting attacking football weren’t converted into the number of goals that they should have been. Nevertheless, Rooney keeps scoring (up to 26 now this season) whilst Young has found form. By now it’ll be no surprise to read that Welbeck was fabulous; Carrick and Scholes were in control; Evans and Ferdinand are a very good pairing; and De Gea is dependable when needed. Yesterday was much of the same as we’ve seen recently but on a longer, larger scale. The 15 minutes of good football at Spurs and Norwich became 75 minutes, although the clinical taking of chances witnessed in London seemed to have been sucked out of the team.
Either way, yesterday’s big talking point was more about events in South Wales as City lost to Swansea. It wasn’t necessarily an unexpected result, as United and other teams have found, going to Swansea is tough; but it was more that City went there, played poorly, and showed a few signs of cracks appearing. Barry was angry to have been subbed off before half time, Yaya and Mario had a (possibly over-played) bust-up; and of course, one City fan couldn’t hold back the tears as Swansea scored.
It’s not that United fans should be getting giddy or even dare to dream that a title is close to being won but make no mistake about it, this was a big weekend.
Leading from the front is something United have done countless times, there are players in the squad who’ve been through this process almost every year for the past 10-20 years. Yet, it’s the players who’ve not done it as often who’re stepping up. Welbeck, De Gea, Young and Evans are peaking at an important part of the season whilst the consistent and experienced ‘old guard’ of Carrick, Ferdinand, Giggs, Evra and Scholes remain unflustered.
Look back to the start of 2012 and United, depleted by injuries, had to face Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs in the league, three of those away from home. City were ahead by three points and, relative to United’s fixtures, had a series of game that should really have seen them stretch their lead over United. Instead, United ended up closing the gap and now find themselves on top looking at the final stretch, which, let’s be honest, looks pretty tasty.
Before United and City meet on the 30th April, City have to host Chelsea and travel to four very tricky away games – Stoke, Arsenal, Norwich and Wolves. There are potential banana-skins (ha ha) in almost every game they play between now and the derby. United by contrast, do have two tough away games at Wolves and Blackburn to come but Fulham, QPR, Villa and Everton at home should be relatively straightforward.
What I’m getting at, albeit somewhat cautiously, is that come the time United and City lock horns, it’s perfectly feasible to come to the conclusion that United could be further ahead and, amazingly, that game at City could be the coronation rather than the ‘decider’. It’s a long-shot and there are 21 points up for grabs by then but United seem to have league momentum behind them now whilst this is new territory for City.
Ultimately, what concerns me more than anything is the approach to Bilbao on Thursday. There’s no doubt that United should put out a strong team and go for the win that’ll see progression into the quarter finals; but, the league is just too important this year. Europe this season has been a mess, United and Fergie have been arrogant in their approach to games – avoiding humiliation in Spain is important but I wouldn’t be too disheartened to sacrifice that competition to ensure three points at Wolves on Sunday are given the best possible chance of being won.
Remember, this is supposedly a poor United squad and City have their best team ever. The league this season would be more than just a title, more than being crowned the best team in the country. It’s about keeping the neighbours quiet for another year. It seems inevitable that City will buy their way to a title at some point soon but not this year.
Despite all the injuries (yes, Match of the Day, you may want to point out City were missing their captain yesterday, but United have been without theirs for nearly 80% of the season) and despite the gamble on young players playing such a big part in the team so early in their careers, United are at the right part of the table once again. Not that you’d know it but United have lost the least amount of Premier League games this season, won the joint most and scored just one fewer goal than freescoring, ‘we’ll score when we want’ City. This could easily be Fergie’s best title win yet (**insert warning about not getting too ahead of myself**).
There are two months to go before any medals will be handed out, titles are rarely won in March but you can understand the hysteria and buzz that United fans will be feeling this morning. We’ve hit the front of the pack and with players returning, plenty in form, and with a favourable fixture list, all the signs are positive. Not to mention that this has been a season of writing off United and loving-up City; as Neville Southall said on Saturday, “the media hate Man Untied” – they’ll be hating this.
I’m very wary about going overboard now and looking stupid should City win the league, slip-ups from both teams are inevitable. However, should the Premier League trophy have red ribbons on it in May, this last weekend will have been the one fans can pin-point as being crucial – after five months of matching City’s results and sitting in their slipstream, United are top again and about to enter into the home-straight.