The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously commented that a week is a long time in politics, but the same could equally be said about football. On Sunday 14th January, the English Premier League title race looked on the verge of becoming a one-horse race, with four months to go in the 2012/13 season. Chelsea’s home-form under the unpopular Rafa Benitez has given them too big a mountain to climb in this race, Manchester United’s relentless accumulation of points leaving them an 11-point gap to bridge, even after that gap lessened at the weekend.
With that in mind, it seemed that it was to be a 2nd successive title-race based around Manchester, but as United had built a 7-point lead at the top, in the process winning at Liverpool, Chelsea and City, it seemed increasingly likely that the title would change hands this season, making the short journey west across the city.
So on a big day of football one Sunday in mid-January, Manchester United overcame a late surge from Liverpool to increase the lead at the top to ten points. City were about to kick off against Arsenal at the Emirates, a ground they hadn’t won at in the league since 1975, when many a City fan had yet to be born. There had been a solitary victory the previous season in the Carling Cup semi-final, a contest between two weakened sides settled by a sublime Sergio Aguero goal. For City, the signs were not good.
And yet, a week later, the gap is down to five points. City reversed the trends of time and won at Arsenal, and having cruised to victory over Fulham, United conceded a late, late equalizer the following day at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur to see their lead cut. Suddenly, the title race is back on.
United however, are still clear favourites. There has been no major collapse from them after all – the only factors in the swing have been due to City navigating a difficult fixture successfully, and United drawing a game away from home, a point at Tottenham Hotspur hardly a disastrous result (though the manner of the draw was of greater consequence). The next eight fixtures for United are also rather kind, so it will be hard for City to bridge that gap further, and after those eight games comes the second derby of the season, at Old Trafford. City may well have to win there to have any chance of retaining their title and they may also have to put another bogey team to bed in the next couple of months also, in beating Everton, plus defeat a Chelsea side that are rampant away from home.
There has been talk that City have struggled this season, in comparison to the barn-storming side that surged through the first half of last season, and that is a fair point, but the stats do not fully back that argument up. City are the form team in the Premier League over the past 6 games (having taken 15 points), and have taken the same number of points as they had at this stage last season (51 points from 23 games). Joe Hart has now kept the most clean sheets in the Premier League this season (10). Despite constant worries this season over City’s leaky defence, City have conceded the fewest goals of any Premier League team, just like last season. They have allowed just 59 shots on target against them this season, the fewest in the Premier League.
The difference though is United’s point total, not City’s. United’s current point total is the second highest gained at this stage of the season in Premiership history (only Chelsea have bettered it), and despite the constant reminders that this current United team is far from their best, they are accumulating points at a better rate than some of their more illustrious predecessors. With the bar set this high, there is little if any room for error. City’s lack of clinical finishing in selected away games in the last few months may prove to be the difference in the end, and linked to that, United’s capture of Robin Van Persie in the summer. United’s defence has attracted greater criticism than City’s, but they have found the goals to overcome this deficiency the majority of the time. This is not to say they are a one-man team however, as many have claimed, having had sixteen different scorers this season so far, more than any other Premier League team.
Nor can we expect Alex Ferguson or Roberto Mancini to freshen up their respective squads much this month. There is talk of Mario Balotelli leaving City, of Wilfried Zaha joining United, but it seems likely that the same batch of players that has seen both teams through the first half of the season will also see them through the remainder. The extra problem for City of course is that the staging of the African Cup of Nations for a second successive year has robbed Mancini of one of his key players in Yaya Toure, and an experienced back-up defender in his brother Kolo Toure, who was showing some better form before departing.
Of course City can try and evoke the spirit of last season, when a bigger deficit was eradicated, and in less time, but such a turnaround is as unlikely now as it was then.
But, if City can stay in touch with United going into the last few games of the season, how much of a psychological effect will last season have on the United players? Perhaps none, only time will tell. But if they slip up once, the anxiety could kick in. Having gained a nice lead in the table, they will be keen to keep City at arm’s length throughout the rest of the season, and not let the title race run until the final games. An annual last-day shoot-out between the two Manchester clubs would test the strongest of hearts, but there could be plenty of them in the years to come.