The bookies will tell you today that Manchester City is now odds-on for the Premier League title after recording an injury time win over Tottenham Hotspur at Eastlands on Sunday afternoon. The win, together with Manchester United’s away victory at Arsenal, leaves City three points clear with 16 games to go. But even if one of the Blues’ toughest remaining fixtures is now out-of-the-way, with 100 per cent home record still intact, the contrasting manner of the two Manchester clubs’ victories says much for how the prevailing wind may now be blowing in the Premier League.
Indeed, City manager Roberto Mancini was thankful for some overly generous refereeing decisions, and Spurs’ inability to finish chances, for the 3-2 victory in east Manchester. Meanwhile, United traveled south to face an Arsenal side that had been the country’s in-form outfit until recent defeats to Fulham and Swansea City. The Reds emerged with a stunning victory in the capital.
City’s plentiful resources, together with United’s ongoing – and lengthening – injury list dictates that Mancini’s side remains logical favourites for the title. But United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his players emerged from the Arsenal encounter with confidence sky-high, believing that the ‘noisy neighbours’ can be reeled in before the season is out.
“It was important to win after City had won their game, but the manner in which we won was the more pleasing thing for me,” admitted Ferguson.
“I think we won in the right way – we played really adventurous football, we were positive and had great belief in ourselves. I’m delighted to see that at this important time in the season. What we need to do is stay on City’s coat-tails. Football is a funny game. The game at City today tells you things can happen and there will be changes [before the end of the season]. We’ve just got to stay on their coat-tails.
Should United stay in touch, both sides will look to the derby on 28 April at Eastlands as a potentially title deciding encounter.
In the meantime, United dominated against Arsenal for long periods, although the Londoners’ attacking response after half-time almost gained Arsène Wenger’s men a result at the Emirates. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s youthful verve and Robin van Persie’s predatory finishing brought the Gunners back into the game. For a moment, with defeat a real possibility, United stared at the precipice. The ensuing six point gap, had Arsenal won, would surely have handed City the title.
But as the momentum swung back in United’s favour on Sunday afternoon, with Wenger aiding the process by removing Arsenal’s best player in Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Reds’ confidence visibly grew. By the time Danny Welbeck lashed home from Antonio Valencia’s mazy run and cut back, there was no doubt about whether United would leave the Emirates with three points.
Ferguson gambled on an attacking formation, despite so few resources at his disposal, and came up trumps once again. The victory leaves United’s players believing that domestic title number 20 will be lifted at Old Trafford in May.
“I think (our gameplan) was to go straight forward, it makes a lot of pressure on the left-back and the right-back and that’s what we did,” captain Patrice Evra told Sky Sports.
“It was a good performance from the team. I think in the second half there were 15 minutes where Arsenal played very well, but we kept strong and had good shape, and after we scored a nice goal. The most important thing for us was to win. Three points were really important if we want to win the title.
“I always say the league is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We are still behind City but we have to keep going, keep winning games and I’m really confident in the team because everyone is working really hard and when we play with the United spirit it is difficult to beat us.”
Victory was United’s eighth on the road this season; a record that is five points better than any other team in the division. It is a series all the more remarkable for United’s poor form away from Old Trafford last time out. And the prevailing mood among the United squad now appears to be one of remorseless pursuit, ensuring that each victory brings pressure to bear on the club’s title rivals.
“I think we had the tougher game because it is always more difficult to go away, and we’ve got the three points,” added veteran midfielder Paul Scholes.
“There’s still three months of the season to go and hopefully we’ll be in the right place when the time comes. Obviously City are going well at the minute but we are only three points behind and funny things can happen towards the end of the season. We just have to make sure we look after ourselves and get the right results.”
That goal is not helped by the ongoing injury problems at the club. Long-term absentees Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher and Fábio da Silva missed the trip south. As did defender Rio Ferdinand, whose back problem has flared up once again. History dictates that the veteran could be out for anything from days to weeks.
Further bad news came during the game when Phil Jones turned over his right ankle. Ferguson confirmed that the £16.5 million former Blackburn Rovers defender will miss “weeks” of the season after damaging ligaments. It could not come at a more inopportune time, although Jones’ injury is hardly surprising given the heavy workload the teenager has faced this season.
Worse still, Michael Carrick played through the second half with a tight hamstring, while Nani did not complete the game after hobbling off with a late ankle problem. The Portuguese winger left London in a protective boot.
Add potential injury to Wayne Rooney into the mix and Ferguson is likely to heavily rotate his team for the FA Cup fixture with Liverpool next weekend. It leaves United to cope, once again, without a plethora of stars. Yet, the ongoing injury problems have seemingly galvanising Ferguson’s squad spirit. Them against us, has become us against the world.
Indeed, injury aside, there were few downsides to victory in London. Ferguson’s team emerged from the Emirates not only with the points, but a genuine sense of momentum in the title race. City may have also won earlier in the day, but Mancini’s side was more than a little fortunate to do so. Add Mario Ballotelli’s inevitable lengthy ban for stamping on Scott Parker’s head, and the Blues could face yet more pressure.
“Soon enough, if we keep ticking these wins then they’ll crumble,” added defender Chris Smalling, who was immense as Jonny Evans’ central defensive partner in London.
“It was a massive win for us. Even at 1-1, we all knew that we really needed to win this game because of what happened earlier, and I think we showed real character.”
It is the very same character that may bring Old Trafford the Premier League trophy come May. Much against the odds and prevailing wisdom.