LONDON: The turnaround at the top of the Premier League last Sunday made a significant difference, not only to the one-two order of new leaders Manchester United and long-time leaders Manchester City, but to the opinion of the bookmakers writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Suddenly United became odds-on favourites to retain their Premier League title even though they have a decisively inferior goal difference to their “noisy neighbours,” as United manager Sir Alex Ferguson describes them. They could be four points clear by tomorrow evening.
United top scorer Wayne Rooney said, in an interview with BBC TV, that “we have stuck in there and kept going, kept working and we’ve gone above them. If we can win this league it will be very satisfying for all the players. There was one stage [when] we weren’t expected to win the league, which is mad when you are talking about Man United. It is great we are back on top and the aim is to stay there.”
City manager Roberto Mancini says that prodigal Carlos Tevez could be matchfit and ready to return to action in time for the Chelsea game next Wednesday stirs an unpredictable factor into the mix. Will Tevez, for example, prove a ‘new’ Rodney Marsh – whose arrival at City in the spring of 1972 threw them off their league title course. That is one which could work either way – along with various other factors.
Psychology: The title run-in involves a number of awkward components. One concerns the difficulty of the remaining fixtures, with relegation fighters often more dangerous than midtable clubs; another concerns the complications of additional cup fixtures; and another relates to experience.
United manager Ferguson has always insisted that his players find their rhythm in the second half of the season which he has also described as “squeaky-bum time.” He knows that from experience. Psychologically United have been here before and won through. For all the experience of their big-name players, this is new for City as a squad.
Squad strengths: These are the two most talented squads in the Premier League. City probably have a greater number of internationally-recognised players than United whose weakness is that three of their key players – Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes – are veterans.
Indeed, the weakness of United’s squad as compared with City is that they have had to recall the masterful Scholes and still rely so heavily on their veterans.
United are also more vulnerable in terms of injuries. Club captain and defensive rock Nemanja Vidic is missing for the rest of the season through injury, Brazilian midfielder Anderson is out again with a hamstring problem and back-up goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is also out for three more weeks.
Current performances: United have won seven of their last eight league games and drawn the other. Those victories 2:1 wins away to Arsenal and home to Liverpool and by 3:1 away to Tottenham. The draw was 3:3 away to Chelsea. In that time they have also won 3:2 away to City in the FA Cup but struggled in the Europa League against Ajax and Bilbao.
By contrast, City have won out of their last 10 league games with the other three games being defeats by Sunderland, Everton and – last weekend – Swansea. They went out of the FA and League Cups in that period to Manchester United and to Liverpool and are a goal in the Europa League to Sporting of Portugal.
Run-in schedule: United are, by general consensus, favoured by the remaining fixtures. Their most difficult game is away to City on Monday, April 30, but otherwise four of their 10 games are against strugglers (Wolves, Blackburn, QPR and Wigan).
City have a more testing run-in including next Wednesday’s home game against Chelsea, away games at Arsenal and Newcastle – potentially crucially on the penultimate day of the season – and a home duel with Manchester United.
The Manchester derby: If one or other collapses under the run-in pressure, then the league title race might be virtually all over by the time United visit City three matches from the end of term. City did win 6:1 at United last October but United won 3:2 at Eastlands in the third round of the FA Cup (albeit City had Vincent Kompany sent off after 12 minutes).
Also . . . : United should win away to Wolves tomorrow/Sunday, meaning they would stretch their lead to a potentially intimidating four points over City who do not play until they host Chelsea on Wednesday (because Chelsea play Leicester in the FA Cup on Sunday).
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