By Wayne Veysey at Old Trafford
The heart of Manchester City’s title challenge is still beating strongly but Manchester United’s march towards a 20th league title is taking on unstoppable proportions.
It was apparent in the ruthless manner in which they dispatched Liverpool to record a home-and-away league double over their historic rivals.
In truth, it has been apparent in all of United’s marquee domestic tussles this season. In six matches against who most would consider their five biggest rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have chalked up five victories.
A second consecutive 2-1 win over Liverpool enabled United to record a noteworthy home-and-away league double over the Merseysiders, their first since the 2007-08 season.
The league leaders, who finished the weekend with the same seven-point lead that they started it with, have also come away from champions City and Chelsea with defining 3-2 victories and, more comfortably, overwhelming Arsenal 2-1 at home.
Of the last six English clubs to compete in the Champions League, only fourth-placed Tottenham have claimed points against United this season, winning 3-2 in distinguished fashion at Old Trafford in September.
The common themes are a marquee-match mentality that was sometimes absent last season, and a cavalier approach that has yielded outstanding results.
By contrast, United’s 2011-12 league campaign was memorable for the home-and-away reverses against City, the unforgettable 6-1 humiliation at Old Trafford and the decisive 1-0 defeat at Etihad Stadium.
Sir Alex’s side failed to rise to the occasion in other plum fixtures last season. They drew 3-3 at Chelsea and 1-1 at Liverpool, even if they swatted aside Arsenal and Tottenham home and away.
In total, they collected a creditable 20 points from 10 games against their five immediate rivals last season, a record that they are only five short of in the current campaign with four fixtures to play.
The fixture list in the second half of the season offers plenty of opportunities to build on this impressive haul. Chelsea and City, who look the most likely clubs to claim the other two of the three top spots, visit Old Trafford on 6 April and 4 May respectively.
United also have two visits scheduled to north London– they travel to Tottenham next weekend and Arsenal on 27 April.
Although you could offer a strong argument for United’s early season conquerors Everton – on February 10 – being the most troublesome of their remaining 16 opponents, no assignment looks too uncomfortable.
Key to United’s big-match success has been the brilliant Robin van Persie, who won his head-to-head duel with Luis Suarez on Sunday and is the strong favourite to defend his Footballer of the Year titles.
The lethal Dutchman extended his league haul to 17 (from 19 starts) with his 19th minute strike, as he provided further proof that here is a sportsman operating at the height of his mental, physical and technical powers.
He has now scored five goals in the ‘big six’ matches this season; winners against Liverpool and City and vital early strikes to set his new team on their merry way against Chelsea, former employers Arsenal and Liverpool once again. Of the big guns, only Tottenham have managed to keep the name of the predatory Dutchman off the score-sheet.
That is what £24 million of ready-made talent buys you.
Van Persie has not only quickly proved his worth at the 19-times champions but his presence in the starting line-up has had the dual purpose of taking the pressure off Wayne Rooney and making this the most eye-catching and watchable Sir Alex Ferguson team since Cristiano Ronaldo was step-overing his way through nervous defences.
United have binned the cloak of caution that had been a feature of many of their high-profile encounters in recent years.
Instead of a patient, tactical approach, there has been a retro attitude of simply out-scoring the opposition. Even on the road, Sir Alex has been content to engage in open matches, confident in the knowledge that United have the firepower to overwhelm any competitor.
In 22 matches, United have plundered 56 goals, an average of 2.55 per game. The next most prolific scorers are City and Chelsea, who have scored 43 apiece.
Few can grumble about the entertainment value among the high rollers. United might have conceded a relatively high 29 goals (City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool, Swansea City, Stoke City and West Ham all have tighter defences) but a porous rearguard looks unlikely to prove as decisive in the title race as in most years.
United’s formula for wresting the team pennant back from their bitter rivals is simple: score plenty and win the games that really matter. It is working a treat.
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