London: After a highly polished win over Everton on Sunday, Manchester United are in an even better position than they were at any stage of the title race last season. Surely this time, surely, there will be no repeat of the late hiccup that handed Manchester City the Premier League on a plate.
City’s feeble defeat to Southampton on Saturday had motivated Sir Alex Ferguson to play one of the strongest starting sides at his disposal. Whether or not he pays for that with some weariness when the team travel to Madrid in mid-week remains to be seen. But the tastiest Champions League tie of the last 16 can wait. The events of the weekend have seen United’s nine-point lead blossom into a 12-point advantage with just 12 matches to go.
Even the fixture list is kind for United. Arsenal are the only top-eight team they must still play away from home and with City suddenly experiencing a striker shortage and some questionable levels of desire, it’s simply a question of how quickly United can make a City comeback mathematically impossible. Realistically, it already is.
Ferguson had been planning to play a heavily weakened side at Old Trafford. In the event, only one of the men certain to start in Spain, Rio Ferdinand, was not involved as the crafty Scot went for the jugular. Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic teamed up so well in central defence against Everton that Ferdinand must have been an impressed bystander, and one who knows that there may well be a changing of the guard in the months ahead.
Certainly, the improvement in Evans over the past 12 months has been remarkable. Positionally, he was particularly excellent, and with another youngster, Phil Jones, playing with calm assurance in the space in front of him, there’s plenty to suggest United can continue to dominate next season and the one after, unless their two most monied adversaries, City and Chelsea, can find some stability and direction.
Ryan Giggs opened the scoring on Sunday, stabbing a right-footed shot from a Robin van Persie assist that caught just enough of the inside of the post to deflect across and behind Tim Howard, and into the Everton goal.
At 39, Giggs thus maintained his phenomenal record of scoring in every single season he has represented United going back to 1991. Back then, United had won just seven league titles, now they are closing on their 20th. The extraordinary bond between player and club continues to astound.
The second goal was provided by Van Persie of course, just before half-time. And though Everton packed more of a punch in the second half, their most creative source Marouane Fellaini was often marked out of the game by Jones.
How different the mood is in the other half of Manchester. Roberto Mancini publicly rebuked his players after they lost 3-1 at Southampton – two of the goals being thoroughly avoidable.
Joe Hart should have easily caught a tame shot – instead he spilled it into the path of Steven Davis – and Gareth Barry must still be wondering what on earth he was doing when side-footing a shot unerringly into the bottom corner of his own goal.
Hart took most of the flak from Mancini: “Joe is a good keeper but a goalkeeper can’t do a mistake like this. Probably we think because we won last year we are top players, but to stay at the top you need to work like we did last year.”
Mancini and his other back-room advisers should share some of the blame. The departure of Mario Balotelli coupled with the as yet unexplained “absence for personal reasons” of Carlos Tevez meant he was left without a striker on the bench – an unforgivable situation for a club with City’s resources.
Tevez seems certain to leave in the summer, along with Samir Nasri and perhaps one or two others. But one man surely staying at his club is Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, whose hot scoring streak continued in the 4-1 win over Wigan.
Lampard produced some outstanding passes too. Forget his age, it would be insane for Roman Abramovich to let this multi-skilled midfielder – Chelsea’s current best player – go to another club in the summer.