While the crushing 6-1 victory for Manchester City at Old Trafford earlier in the season and Tottenham’s position above Arsenal should have been a sign that the two clubs were about to topple their nearest rivals and achieve their goals set out in the summer, both sides’ obvious lack of experience at the very top of the Premier League mountain could play a crucial role in deciding their final standing come May.
It’s been no surprise that Manchester City have held the top spot in the Premier League for so long. Even though Manchester United remained within arms reach of Roberto Mancini’s men, and Spurs even at one point or another threatening to overtake for first place, many who predicted City to win the title this season would have had many legs with which to support their claim.
It’s the size of the City squad, the quality, and the ability to rotate with relative ease that has allowed Roberto Mancini to guide his side to the top and put another test forward for Sir Alex Ferguson and United. But along with their early season form and a sense that this season would be a walk in the park, namely due to the inconsistent form of those around them and the weak squad at United, the pressure in recent weeks may just be starting to tell.
In much the same way that Spurs’ loss to Arsenal in February marked a turning point for both North London clubs, City’s loss to Swansea two weeks ago brought forward a number of questions about how genuine we can take this charge for the title from the blue half of Manchester. Yes, Swansea have been praised for much of the season and have picked up notable wins along the way, but at this stage in the season—and as we’ve seen countless times over the years from United—that is a game that a title favourite should be winning. Not necessarily coasting to victory, but at the very least grinding out a result instead of frantically looking to grab hold of a single point.
The truth is, and on the face of it, City should have gone into that game and laid down their marker very early on that they were going to leave with all three points—the quality in their squad and the price with which it was assembled certainly warranted more. Joe Hart’s mind games with Scott Sinclair and subsequent penalty save should have been enough for the team to go on and win the game. Instead, reported in-house fighting and a noticeable lack of calm ahead of the final few games became the talking point.
Mancini has done it before in Italy, there is a title winning striker in the squad in Edin Dzeko, and players like Yaya Toure from Barcelona and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany, among others, should be looking to steady the ship and provide enough experience in title run-ins. But unlike other leagues where we have seen surprise winners and challenges from unlikely teams, the Premier League is very different. That now-famous line of “Can they do it on a cold night in Stoke” couldn’t be more appropriate at this time. United have done it before and even now have managed to grind out results. But from the showing at Swansea, it remains to be seen whether City can do it when it matters.
In the case of Spurs it was always Champions League qualification, with only a week or two of title challenging talk. And in a lot of ways, if Spurs were in Chelsea’s position now—lying in fifth—and managed to make the top four, Harry Redknapp would be praised and they would go on to build in the summer. It just so happens that they occupied third for so long and Arsenal’s late, late, resurgence has brought about talk of a lack of experience.
The Arsenal defeat and the 5-2 score-line may have had too much of a negative effect on the Spurs squad. A 3-2 loss or even a draw would surely have not seen them fail to register a point since that game. But even Redknapp’s tactical decisions on the day and following Louis Saha’s introduction have been questionable. Not necessarily famed for being a tactician but rather built on the strength of his man-management, maybe the pressure is starting to tell the Spurs dugout, much like at City.
Their closest rivals are quickly approaching and there is little they can do to stop them. United and Arsenal are equipped with the tools to finish in the top four, and while I do expect Spurs to qualify for the Champions League next season, they and City are significantly lacking when compared to their rivals.
The title race could another one which goes down to the final day, but with many who predicted a City win now dashing over to United’s corner in support of Ferguson. At the same time, there’s plenty of time for Arsenal to take another heavy hit which knocks them out of the picture, just like United’s lack of depth in important areas of the pitch may come to heavily favour City. But there can be little doubting that failure at this stage for either City or Spurs will be attributed to lack of experience from both sides. The two strongest squads in the league certainly have little else going against them.
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