If, on October 23rd 2011, you had a heavy blow to the head and all knowledge of Premier League campaigns were simultaneously erased from your memory, you may have stood aloof at your television/betting slip/friend in the pub and sanctimoniously proclaimed that this year the Barclay’s Premier League was a one-horse race. However, a one-horse race, by definition, is one in which only one of the competitors has a real chance of winning and, of course, “you can’t write off Manchester United,” says Newcastle defender Danny Simpson.
Yet, Danny Simpson’s comments came the morning after his side had torn apart a lacklustre Manchester United side at St. James’ Park, meaning that, having failed to pick up any points in their past two Premier League games, Tottenham are only three points behind them with a game in hand. Maybe it isn’t a one-horse race, not even one of those two-horse races you often see in La Liga nowadays, but maybe, this year, the Premier League is a three-horse race. Imagine that: three beautiful stallions, magnificently crowned with the majestic Fergie, devilishly good-looking Mancini and rather plump Harry, galloping powerfully towards their destiny, pulling away from the string of inferior horses playing host to their jockeys in the form of Arsene Wenger, Kenny Dalglish and Andre Villas-Boas.
Two dead horses
It might just be though, that the most experienced jockey of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson, is riding a dead horse: last week, Alan Pardew threatened to go gung-ho from the first whistle, “Looking at Manchester United’s recent games, teams that have sat back have got thumped,” said the Toon boss, “They’ve got such talent in their ranks, they’re going to cause you problems but we have a striker in form and a central midfield pairing that I think is as good as theirs,” he added, in the faintest of praise for a midfield partnership that is far outshining one that has been bolstered with the return of a 37-year old that retired over 6 months ago. It worked too; Newcastle United went out, flooded the wings with overlapping run after overlapping run and forced three goals out of a dismal Man. United side that couldn’t reply.
Having lost their first away game in 11, Sir Alex’s Manchester United had to travel to The Etihad to face Premier League leaders, and perfect home form holders, Manchester City. Instead of stoking a fire, much like pundits across the ITV suggested he was probably doing on a personal level with his players in the dressing room and Mancini eluded to by describing them as “angry,” he said absolutely nothing and thus gave out the most vocal of mind game messages according to professional psychologist Nicky Butt: “[bringing back Scholes] took all the attention off their home record and the bookmakers’ odds and switched all the attention to Paul Scholes and Manchester United. It was a great little bit of psychology.” For all the brilliance of Ferguson’s psychological mind games, it wasn’t quite as anatomically bright: a massive 4 minutes and 12 seconds after coming on for Nani, Paul Scholes set up Manchester City’s 2nd goal by providing James Milner with the ball on a plate to cross for Sergio Aguero. Nicky Butt obviously avoided mentioning this to try and leapfrog his former Manchester United team mate in a bid to become his new favourite ginger.
My eyebrows are better boss – Butt
However, winner of the best mind game of them all regarding the race at the top of the Premier League goes to Roberto Mancini for his comments before that fateful F.A Cup tie that made that second-half restoration and assault on Manchester United’s pride all the more prevalent. He did something Harry Redknapp hasn’t done directly all season: “I think in this moment, City, United and Tottenham can win this title.”
Now, despite winning, Manchester United will be licking their wounds after a “careless” second-half display, which saw the chance to really hurt Manchester City and meanwhile galvanise their own season, disappear into the heavy Mancunian mist – and with it came a Kolarov and Aguero goal. Tottenham have a January ahead of them that they will feel is favourable to their title hopes and like I said on Monday 12th December, this month will be the most vital stage of Spur’s season.
The Premier League has shown time and time again that the team who run away with it the quickest isn’t always the team that wins the race and no more valid an example can be found than Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United in the 1995/96 campaign, which saw them 12 points clear at the top in February, but eventually fall behind eventual winners Manchester United. However, the “we’ll score more than you,” philosophy that was on display at St. James’ Park under Keegan, isn’t quite the same mentality instilled at The Etihad under Mancini. Much more relevant to City’s current campaign is Chelsea’s title winning season of 2005/06. The first half of their season saw them pick up 45 points from 48 in a team based on strong foundations in defence, but their steady ship rocked and an eventual 18-point lead in March was cut to just seven late on in the season. Manchester City have gone in to 2012 as consistent as they have been all season, but with a lead of just 3 points rather than the lofty ones of the two above examples, a bit of looking of the shoulder behaviour wouldn’t be unwise.
Roberto Mancini is aware that Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham are not to be underestimated and his focus on them, equally as strong as his focus on a “dangerous” United, is prudent. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United does have the durability factor, but as they are showing this season, they are vulnerable and potentially the weakest Manchester United side the Scotsman has had to manage in the past decade. As much as they could stick it out and push City until the final day, they could drift away in a fashion never expected of a United side. If they do this, premature celebrations would be foolish: calmly and unassumingly waiting is Tottenham Hotspurs, technically creative and quietly threatening.