MANCHESTER: Fifteen points clear with nine games to go. Mathematically this does not add up to a perfect assurance that Manchester United have regained the Premier League title from their “noisy neighbours,” Manchester City.
But the record-extending 20th title is within comfortable reach and it will be all the sweeter for manager Sir Alex Ferguson, to have righted what he considers the wrong of last season when City snatched the crown with virtually the last kick of the last game.
Ferguson has been denied the opportunity to lead United out in the Champions League Final on ‘home’ turf at Wembley. But if anything can be considered rich compensation for this most aggressively competitive of managers then overturning City will suffice.
City, last season’s key men not up to the same standard this term, were left clinging on to the trophy by only their fingertips after losing 2:0 to erratic Everton on Merseyside at lunchtime. Goals from Leon Osman and Nikica Jelavic achieved the damage which could see half a dozen ‘name’ players heading out of the Eastlands exit – and possibly even manager Roberto Mancini.
The greatest irony of the day was that United’s surprising narrow 1:0 win at home to managerless, relegation-bound Reading should have been delivered by Wayne Rooney. His future at Old Trafford remains open to question despite Ferguson’s denials since he dropped Rooney for the fatal Real Madrid visit.
Rooney will be expected to deliver again against San Marino and then Montenegro in the World Cup qualifiers in the next nine days. So, intriguingly, will Rio Ferdinand who has been recalled by England manager Roy Hodgson after being jettisoned before Euro 2012.
Ferdinand has won 81 caps and, at 34, remains a class act when fit. He not only displayed the fact on a number of occasions against Reading but also created Rooney’s winning goal. Ferdinand strode forward to join attack and laid the ball off for Rooney to see his shot deflected home off the boot of defender Alex Pearce.
It was his 16th goal of the season.
Reading almost equalised through Hal Robson-Kanu and had a strong penalty appeal turned down when Nemanja Vidic pushed Adrian Mariappa after the interval. But the Royals, who sacked manager Brian McDermott at the start of the week, look certainties for relegation after sliding seven points from safety.
United marched on, albeit far from their best, and now need ‘only’ another 13 points to guarantee their 13th Premier League crown. That is assuming Mancini’s will take maximum points from their nine remaining fixtures which is highly unlikely.
Not that Ferguson is taking anything for granted. Private planes have been hired to bring their players back as fast as possible from international duty. United are taking every care because, after the break, they go to Sunderland on March 30 for a lunchtime kick-off then face Chelsea 48 hours later in their FA Cup quarter-final replay.
Ferguson said: “Private planes are going to cost the club an awful lot of money but it is something we feel we have to do. You don’t get points or medals for being complacent and we won’t be.”
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