United nearly home and dry as they disappear into the distance
SOCCER: English Premier LeagueThe title race is all but over. Alex Ferguson will not admit it, and neither will any of his players, especially with the memory of last year’s capitulation still fresh in the mind, but there seems little chance of history repeating itself when Manchester United are disappearing into the distance, relentlessly grinding out victories and twisting the knife whenever their neighbours slip up.
Ferguson’s programme notes read more like a team-talk to his players, whom he warned would “feel the full effect of the hairdryer” if they allowed Everton to derail their title hopes for a second successive season. The 4-4 draw at Old Trafford last April was, by Ferguson’s own admission, “the turning point” in the championship and the moment when Manchester City scented blood. This 2-0 victory against the same opponents was a simple case of United turning the screw.
They are now 12 points clear at the top of the table with 12 games remaining - Arsenal are the only top-eight team they have still to play away from home - and it is hard, almost impossible in fact, to imagine lightning striking twice and City wrestling the title from United’s grasp again. Those final moments on the pitch at Sunderland, on the final day of the season, when news filtered through that City had scored a late winner, are seared in Ferguson’s mind.
He wrote in the programme about how some of United’s players, at a time when they were eight points ahead with seven matches remaining, had spent too much time worrying about their rivals’ results. “It’s akin to taking your eye off the ball and you don’t need me to remind you what happened.”
The irony, though, is that Ferguson’s team selection here was influenced by what happened to City 24 hours earlier. With Wednesday night’s last-16 Champions League tie first leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on the horizon, Ferguson had planned to make seven changes for the visit of Everton. Everything changed, however, when City lost 3-1 at Southampton.
From that moment on the Everton fixture became, in Ferguson’s words, “an opportunity to get a real comfortable lead”. A United team featuring at least seven probable starters in Madrid accepted the invitation.
United were not at their fluent best here but how many times have we heard that this season? In many respects it is hard to view this as a vintage United team – central midfield is short of star quality and there is a vulnerability about their defence as well as the goalkeeping position. All of which makes it all the more remarkable that, in terms of points on the board (65 from 26 matches), this is United’s best ever Premier League season.
A large chunk of the credit for that statistic inevitably falls at the feet of Robin van Persie, whose goals have done more than anything to shift the balance of power in Manchester from the Etihad Stadium back to Old Trafford. This was another of those occasions when United seemed to be playing within themselves at times - Ferguson admitted that Everton “dominated for 20 minutes in the first half” - yet with Van Persie on the pitch the complexion of the match can change in the blink of an eye.
Ferguson refused to accept the title race is over. “No, no, no” was the United manager’s response to the suggestion that a 20th league title was on its way at Old Trafford. “The plan is to win our next game, then the next game and then the next one. That is the only thing you can do. Eventually, the games whittle away.”
Ferguson claimed on Friday that he would field two different teams against Everton and Real Madrid. “I was going to make seven changes,” admitted Ferguson. “Then when I got the [City] result I thought this would be a more important game for us. It would give us a comfortable lead and we could make changes later on in the season. Realistically we knew if we got a result it would put us in a fantastic position. We have to win our games anyway. It doesn’t matter what happened to City. ”
Jose Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, was at Old Trafford and insisted the Champions League tie would be one to savour. “It is the match the world is waiting for,” said Mourinho.