Crunch time in Manchester

Will United’s experience outlast City’s wealth of talent as the English Premier League title race goes down to the wire?

Alex Ferguson
No big deals: United’s re-signing of Paul Scholes remains the club’s only major midfield signing in five years [GETTY]

If Sir Alex Ferguson is able to guide Manchester United to their 20th English league title this season, it will surely be the Scotsman’s greatest domestic trophy.
It is hard to believe that the Red Devils have returned to the top of the English Premier League table with 10 games remaining. But imagine how much further ahead they would be if Sir Alex Ferguson had the calibre of player at the disposal of Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini.
United are poised to extend their lead to four points by accounting for relegation threatened Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday. With City hosting a rejuvenated Chelsea on Wednesday, Mancini’s men could conceivably fall further off the pace.
The Manchester derby on April 30th – the third last game of the season – is being billed as the title decider but the truth is that the race could be effectively over by then. In addition to Chelsea, City’s tough fixtures include Arsenal, Sunderland and Stoke at the Britannia Stadium.

United’s path to the showdown at the Etihad Stadium is a lot more benign, including matches against bottom-feeders Wigan and Queens Park Rangers.

Their European records this season are a telling indicator that neither of these two Manchester clubs are very good in international terms. The fact that both were knocked out of the Europa League by Iberian opposition this week after flopping in the Champions League did little to change that perception.
Mancini will be instantly sacked if the Citizens fail to win the title after spending spree of more than $475 million, and rightly so.

He must take the brunt of the blame for the precarious position they find themselves in.

Anything goes

With the United squad carrying the determined resilience of bloodied soldiers in the trenches, City’s superstars continue to act like spoiled children vying for attention at a dysfunctional family party.

Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli of Manchester City reacts after he does not win a foul during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on March 11, 2012 in Swansea, United Kingdom. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Petulant and erratic – Mario Balotelli leads the City field in poor on and off-field behaviour [GETTY]

Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure had a half-time bust-up in the tunnel last weekend at Swansea.

Even a midfield plodder like Gareth Barry behaved like a prima donna, shouting with fury at assistant manager David Platt when he was subbed off after 38 mediocre minutes at the Liberty Stadium.
The return of abominable Carlos Tevez from exile has sent a signal to the squad that almost anything goes in terms of individual behaviour. That notion is reinforced with the continuing selection of the erratic Balotelli ahead of Edin Dzeko, despite the Bosnian’s sharp return to form.
Mancini’s tactics are bewildering at times and prove that a cautious Serie A approach rarely works in the premiership.

His decision to play three defensive midfielders – Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong – backfired horribly at Swansea. We all thought that he had learnt from that mistake last season.
Harry Redknapp had his tongue in his cheek when he suggested in January that any Fleet Street journalist could take up the manager’s reigns at Carrington and win the title. But he was correct if he was hinting that most top European coaches would make a better fist of it than the former Italian international.
So often, Mancini behaves like the eccentric millionaire who insists on counting out coins to pay for a big purchase when he has bags of one thousand dollar bills lying around. Instead of doing more with less, he achieves the exact opposite.

European woes

Player for player, Man City’s squad is probably better than both Barcelona and Real Madrid. But collectively they are barely fit to be on the same field as the two Spanish giants. Remember they were knocked out of different European competitions by Napoli and Sporting Lisbon.
Sir Alex continues to work near miracles, despite a horrendous injury toll that has sidelined key players for extended periods. For a sometimes-fragile defence, the biggest blow has been the loss of captain and centre-back Nemanja Vidic, who was carried off with a serious knee injury in December and will not play again this season.
The Man United engine room has coped with the absence of its most influential midfielder, Darren Fletcher, who has been sidelined since November as he battles a debilitating bowel condition.
Even with a full complement of players, this is not an exceptional Manchester United squad, with the possible exception of their attacking stocks. When you are getting ready to sell off the excellent Dimitar Berbatov it does indicate an embarrassment of riches up-front.
But Manchester United’s reported perilous financial state, under the ownership of the Glazer family, has limited their purchasing power. The re-signing of 37-year-old Paul Scholes remains the only major central midfield acquisition since 2007.
Most neutrals would prefer for the Red Devils not to win their fifth Premier League title in six seasons and see another team lift the trophy. But Devils delight does seem the most likely outcome.
What the Citizens need now is what some observers call a Macheda moment, which helped propel their red rivals to the 2008-2009 title. That was when teenage substitute Federico Macheda scored an injury time goal in his debut for a 3-2 victory over Aston Villa that dislodged Liverpool from top spot with just over a month to go. That kind of break might change the momentum of the trophy race.
But given the rumbles in the Etihad dressing room, such a miracle, even from returning rascal Tevez, seems far-fetched.
As one unnamed ex-Man City star muttered to me this week: “I am dreading what the Man United fans will say to us at the end of the season if they win yet another title.”
Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever the world’s first international football podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey

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Source: Al Jazeera