Don't believe myth that United are the strongest finishers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2012, 12:00am

The English Premier League is a marathon not a sprint, according to the old saying, but now the destiny of the title is going to come down to which of the Manchester clubs can manage the fastest finish over the final 10 games.

United have finally re-taken the lead after a dogged pursuit and they have the chance to raise the pace a little further tomorrow with victory at struggling Wolves, while City must wait until Wednesday night's home match against Chelsea for their chance to respond.

The widespread belief is that the momentum is with United, who are now firm favourites at 1.48 to lift the title. Yet, while City appear to have stagnated, there has been only one point between the two teams over the past 10 games.

That suggests the perception of United being strong favourites may be misplaced and that the race will go down to the wire.

Of course, that analysis depends on City's manager and players seeing the situation coolly and rationally, rather than panicking at the sight of United on top of the table - and, in all probability, pulling further clear tomorrow by taking three points from Wolves.

The other commonly held belief that is influencing the betting is that United find their best form at what manager Alex Ferguson calls 'squeaky bum time', yet the reality is somewhat different.

United have taken 22 points from the past 10 games, which is around or perhaps a little below the mark you would expect of title challengers - the equivalent over the course of a season would amount to 84 points.

What's most interesting is that United have secured a 22-point haul in the final 10 games in fewer than half of the 19 Premier League seasons, which belies the notion that they come on strong when it matters most. Their average in the final 10 games over those 19 seasons is just under 22 points and is slightly higher overall in the matches before they enter the final 10.

In other words, on average, United perform slightly worse in the final 10 games than in the rest of the season. That does not mean Ferguson's team won't win the title, nor that they are incapable of the perfect run-in they achieved in the 1999-2000 season when they took all 30 points from their final 10 games.

But it is glib to say they always perform to a high level when the chips are down at the end of the season. United's remaining fixtures look slightly easier (six of the 10 are against teams in the bottom half of the table, compared with five for City) and at the moment there is nothing simpler than playing Wolves, who are the worst team in the Premier League on current form.

Wolves have taken just five points from their last eight games, losing five and conceding a total of 22 goals.

That should make them easy pickings for United, who rank top in away games against bottom-half teams with six wins and a draw, although it is worth noting that they have won only two of those games by more than a goal. Over 2.5 goals may be a better bet than United on the handicap, as it's likely that both would occur together and United's defence is always prone to conceding even against far inferior opponents.

Three of the big six are still in the FA Cup as it reaches the quarter-final stage this weekend and all have been blessed with home draws - Tottenham v Bolton, Chelsea v Leicester and Liverpool v Stoke.

The FA Cup winners almost always come from the elite, but the trio's faltering form raises the possibility of an upset or two en route to Wembley. Chelsea are a mid-table ninth in the Premier League over the past eight games, with Tottenham and Liverpool even worse in 14th and 15th respectively.

Chelsea are on the up again, however, after their excellent performance in midweek to knock Napoli out of the Champions League and they may be the best bet for FA Cup glory.

They have the easiest tie of the weekend on paper against Championship side Leicester and their rediscovered goal-scoring touch points to a handicap win and over 2.5 goals. Leicester have conceded in their past six away games - letting in three goals on three occasions - and are unlikely to withstand a battering.

Liverpool are strongly favoured for a home win over Stoke, who have become cup specialists under Tony Pulis but still have problems scoring away to the elite teams.

The difficulty here is that Liverpool are clearly capable of making their class tell, as they did in the 3-0 home win over Everton on Tuesday night, but don't do it with enough consistency for punters to be confident about backing them.

Tottenham should be too good at home to Bolton, having already beaten them 3-0 at White Hart Lane this season. The best bet could be over 2.5 goals, as Bolton don't know how to play a stifling game on the road.

Everton v Sunderland is the closest FA Cup tie on paper, with both teams in good form.

Sunderland under Martin O'Neill have won 11 out of 18, with only four defeats, while Everton's record in the same period is won nine, drawn five and lost three.

Those runs have included a 1-1 between the sides at Sunderland in December and this looks close again, although Everton's home advantage may just be enough for them to win.


Points won by United in the last 10 league games. But they have gained that figure in their final 10 games in under half of the last 19 seasons


1 West Brom on handicap

Fourth-best away team in the Premier League against the worst home side

2 Cardiff home win

Eight wins out of 11 at home to teams below them

3 Huddersfield on handicap

Unbeaten since Simon Grayson took charge last month

4 Osasuna on handicap

In form and good chance away to bottom club

5 Nurnberg home win

Attractive odds against the Bundesliga's worst away side

Shortlist: West Brom, Cardiff, Huddersfield, Brentford, Osasuna, Nurnberg.


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