West Brom the surprise but United lead the way
It is now much less certain that the two Manchester teams will finish in first and second place, writes PAUL WILSON
Manchester United are seven points clear at the halfway stage of their Premier League season, and still people are asking the same question. Can a team who keep coming from behind and staging dramatic late recoveries really keep it going for a whole campaign, or at least long enough to secure another title?
A glance at the table would suggest the answer might be yes. All Alex Ferguson ever asks for at the turn of the year is to be there or thereabouts, so to be in a position where the lead could be extended to double figures with a home game against West Bromwich Albion and a trip to Wigan Athletic in the next few days allows a healthier outlook than anyone would have dared hope for a team with a leaky defence and a midfield that keeps being overrun.
For while United may not be in the very best of health, they are clearly in better shape than their neighbours, who managed to drop three points at Sunderland after labouring all afternoon before coming up with an injury-time goal to beat lowly Reading.
As long as you stick to the view that the title is a two-horse race and the Premier League trophy is likely to remain in Manchester, United’s goal-scoring ability and knack of winning games by sheer force of personality will probably be enough to keep them in front.
Although City looked impressive as recently as a fortnight ago at Newcastle, when even Ferguson congratulated them on a performance that showed they were not about to relinquish their title without a fight, Roberto Mancini’s players seem to be suffering too many ordinary days to keep up the pressure on United.
City visit Norwich City today, where United and Arsenal have already lost but where Chelsea picked up three points on St Stepen’s Day with a quiet, unflashy 1-0 victory to put themselves within four points of the defending champions with a game in hand.
This is where earlier assumptions of a two-horse race may have to be revised. While Chelsea are still a long way behind the leaders they could certainly catch City, and with the talent at his disposal it would not be the greatest surprise should Rafael Benitez coax more consistency from his side than Mancini can manage.
The consistency City showed in winning the title last season has not been as much in evidence this season, and neither have goals been as easy to come by.
The two sides below City in the table, Chelsea and Tottenham, both climbed back into the top four by scoring goals a plenty over Christmas, and though that may be more of an indication of Aston Villa’s current feebleness than the potency of the London challenge, with half a season still to go it is now much less certain that Manchester teams will finish first and second.
That is what festive fixtures have always been able to do, alter the whole outlook within the space of a few days, and though this is the exact halfway point for most Premier League teams, by the time the new year programme has been completed two more rounds of games will have been played and the focus will have subtly started to shift to the number of games that remain.