After an early-season blip in which United threw away points in winning positions against Everton, Fulham, and West Bromwich Albion, United have regained the steely determination which manager Sir Alex Ferguson has inculcated in the team since his tenure began over a quarter of a century ago.
Ferguson’s team has won all there is to win during his record-breaking time as manager – including the most coveted trophy of the UEFA Champions League on two separate occasions – but to win the league title this year would complete Ferguson’s greatest triumph. When Ferguson took over at Old Trafford in 1986, they were firmly in the shadow of their fiercest rivals, Liverpool, who were all conquering in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and who had won eighteen league titles by the time Ferguson won his first – and United’s first for 25 years – in 1993.
Since then, United has won 10 more league titles – and Liverpool none – and has drawn level with Liverpool’s haul of eighteen league titles when United last won the league in 2009. Now, sitting two points clear of second-placed Arsenal with a game in hand, United has the opportunity to open up a gap between themselves and the rest of the pack. If they win the title this year, they will have finally achieved what Ferguson set out to do when he took over the reins at United. As Ferguson himself said, “My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”
In the last three months, league holders Chelsea have endured their worst run of form for 15 years. They were five points ahead of United in second place in October, but a 15-point turnaround has seen the champions slip down to fourth, 10 points behind United. Their North London rivals, Arsenal, keen to end a trophy drought that goes back to 2005, will be desperate to end their slide, but a fragility in the big games (Arsenal has been defeated by both Chelsea and Manchester United already) and a lack of squad depth may undermine their bid for the title yet again.
Nouveau-riche Manchester City saw their bid to gatecrash the top four stall with a defeat away to Aston Villa during the weekend; it remains to be seen whether Roberto Mancini’s squad of mercenaries can show the togetherness and mettle required to make a serious push for the title. Another pretender to the crown, Tottenham Hotspur, have turned heads both at home and in Europe this year, with an attractive and gung-ho approach that saw them emerge unscathed from the toughest Champions League group, beating holders Inter Milan along the way.
Just as at the top of the table, the bottom is even more open; any one of the bottom nine or ten teams could feasibly go down. West Ham United look one of the likeliest, and their reputation has taken a body blow with the poor treatment of their beleaguered manager, Avram Grant. The club tried to surreptitiously replace him with ex-Aston Villa manager Martin O’ Neill, but the story was leaked to the press and fell through. Wolves, Birmingham, and Wigan Athletic look like three of the other likeliest contenders to see the drop, but anything is possible between now and May.
The success story of the season has undoubtedly been the surprising form of newly-promoted Blackpool. Under the management of outspoken maverick Ian Holloway, the team – the smallest to ever win promotion to the Premier League – has played an attractive brand of attacking football, winning the team new fans up and down the country. Victories home and away against struggling Liverpool have been the icing on the cake of a successful season to date, but Holloway has been careful to ensure that the team and the fans don’t reach too high, too soon. Survival will be enough for the Tangerines this season.