Manchester United make it clear to City: lightning won't strike twice

Alex Ferguson

The title race is all but over.

Sir Alex Ferguson will not admit it, and neither will any of his players, especially with the memory of last year's capitulation still fresh, 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 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 the last-16 Champions League tie first leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu 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 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.

It says it all that even though this was not one of Van Persie's best days at the office – the Dutchman hit the upright after rounding Tim Howard early on, squandered another decent chance in the closing stages and spent a fair bit of time being flagged offside – he still finished with an assist to his name to go with a 23rd goal of the season.

The goal Van Persie created provided another landmark moment in the extraordinary career of the evergreen Ryan Giggs. Teed up by Van Persie, who had escaped the clutches of John Heitinga, Giggs took a touch before planting a right-foot shot that went in off the upright to maintain his incredible record of scoring in every season since 1991. Some of the players who featured when he first broke through are close to collecting their state pension.

It was fitting that Rafael da Silva was involved in the second goal. Arguably the best player on the pitch, the Brazilian, who is likely to have the unenviable task of shackling Cristiano Ronaldo in Madrid on Wednesday, delivered the through ball that Van Persie, played onside by Phil Neville, converted.

From that point on, the game was up for an Everton side who never looked like reprising the two-goal comeback they produced at Old Trafford last season.

City may also be facing a forlorn task in their pursuit of the title, even though there are a couple of examples of clubs throwing away double-digit leads in the Premier League era.

In 1997-98 Arsenal turned around a 13-point deficit to beat United to the title, although they had 19 matches to chip away at that advantage. A couple of years earlier Kevin Keegan went into meltdown – "I'll love it if we beat them" – and Newcastle famously surrendered a 12-point lead to United.

Back then, though, United had 15 games to close the gap. City's task is more formidable, partly because the matches are running out, but more because United are being driven on by the events of last May.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart James at Old Trafford, for The Guardian on Sunday 10th February 2013 22.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

image: © Andrea Sartorati

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