What makes a great champion? Is it the ability to produce the goods even when the performances haven’t been quite there? Or perhaps even the ability to not just attain success, but to sustain it, too? When evaluating the merits of Manchester United’s seemingly inevitable 20th league championship, it seems both of the above have played a prominent part.
With 15 points now separating United with second placed Manchester City, bar what would be something of a cataclysmic disaster, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side are all but guaranteed the Premier League crown this season.
In fact, should the gulf between themselves and their Manchester rivals increase even further, the men from Old Trafford only need another three more points to equal the record 18 point gap they amassed between themselves and runners-up Arsenal during the 1999-2000 season.
Yet in spite of such potentially record-breaking feats lying in wait for the Red Devils at the end of this campaign, such achievements seem to contradict the background of doubt and the underwhelming aura that seems to have underpinned their 2012-13 season. Should – perhaps that should read ‘when’ – they lift the trophy, the feeling is that it will be heralded more as business as usual, rather than a victory for the ages.
So why is it that Manchester United’s potentially historic league-winning season is being greeted with such dampened enthusiasm?
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Given the fact that Ferguson’s team ambled on with one of the leakiest defenses in the entire top ten of the Premier League for the first half of the season, it feels truly remarkable that they can find themselves sitting on such an unprecedented cushion of points.
United entered the New Year having conceded a staggering 28 goals after 21 games – more than anyone else in the top ten within the league. Indeed, before their 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford back in January, the clean sheet total stood at an alarming five. So chastising was their habit of going behind in games, Sir Alex Ferguson described his side’s lack of concentration as their ‘Achilles heel’ in the aftermath of coming from two behind to beat Aston Villa 3-2 back in November.
And a mere seven days after that inspired comeback against Paul Lambert’s men, United suddenly found themselves a point behind City, after their disastrous 1-0 defeat to Norwich saw them throw away a mini five point lead in a matter of days. Far from looking like a record-breaking season, Ferguson’s men were heading into Christmas enduring what many observed to be a campaign beset by defensive flaws and inconsistency.
But in amongst the raft of clichés that surround Manchester United within the Premier League, the most prevalent ones remain clichés for good reason. And alongside the one denoting how they usually start to kick on after the festive period, is the observation that they have a rather consistent habit of winning football matches without playing particularly real; not so much a clever knack, rather a mastered art.
In their final game of 2012, United proved exactly what champions were made of in what feels like something of a fitting motif for the season that they’ve enjoyed so far. For large spells of their 2-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion, while the side looked confident going forward, they were given a real run for their money by Steve Clarke’s side at times. Whereas in past campaigns, this was the sort of game they would have eased to victory in, here, they made hard graft of winning all three points.
But the only thing that ultimately mattered was the three points, and tellingly, it was them who finished seven points clear of City come the end of 2012, despite the usually-well oiled outfit often grinding their way to victory, as opposed to easing to it.
Yet while their strength in the face of defensive adversity – not to mention what’s been a searing improvement in their rearguard over the last few weeks – it’s perhaps the looming spectre of a fading City side that have inadvertently played their part in raining upon their rival’s parade.
Where as their record 18-point winning margin over Arsenal in 2000 was achieved with the glittering bulk of their treble-winning side the season before, amongst a cascade of goals – a stunning 97, to be precise – their 15-point gap has perhaps owed as much to the futile title defense that Mancini’s men have produced, as much as their own searing efforts.
As much can be said for sustaining glory, as there can be in initially attaining it and for Manchester City to find themselves so far out of reach of their rivals when United have hardly been enjoying a vintage season themselves, feels woefully disappointing.
Mancini may feel that the signing of Robin van Persie has been the difference between the two sides, but for as good as he is, he’s not been the sole catalyst for a staggering 15-point improvement on a team that finished level on points with The Citizens last term. And in conceding the title this season, perhaps the Italian has witnessed first-hand what it takes to retain it.
Regardless of whether Manchester United break the all time margin of victory record for a league title, their campaign will never be remembered as a classic and as much as they owe that to some of their early season performances, it’s their rival’s fate that has also made that a reality.
But in managing to lift the title amongst such a torrent of relatively meagre praise, Ferguson’s team have perhaps reminded us that grit, steel and efficiency are just as valuable traits in a champion, as headline winning last-gasp finishes. Certainly, their 20th title won’t be as memorable as City’s third, but it may just be all the more impressive.
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