Red Devils in driving seat and will be hard to shift

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


If Alex Ferguson is able to guide Manchester United to their 20th English league title this season, it would surely be the Scotsman's greatest domestic trophy. It is hard to believe the Red Devils have returned to the top of the table with 10 games remaining. But imagine how much further ahead they would be if Ferguson had the calibre of player at the disposal of Manchester City's Roberto Mancini.

United are poised to extend their lead to four points by accounting for relegation-threatened Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow. With City hosting a rejuvenated Chelsea on Wednesday, Mancini's men could conceivably fall further off the pace.

The Manchester derby on April 30 - the third-last game of the season - is being billed as the title decider but the truth is that the race could be effectively over by then. In addition to Chelsea, City's tough fixtures include Arsenal, Sunderland and Stoke, at the Britannia Stadium. United's path to the showdown at the Etihad Stadium is a lot more benign, including matches against bottom-feeders Wigan and Queens Park Rangers.

Their European record this season is a telling indicator that neither of these two Manchester clubs are very good in international terms. The fact that both were knocked out of the Europa League by Iberian opposition this week after flopping in the Champions League did little to change that perception.

Mancini will be instantly sacked if they fail to win the title after a spending spree of more than GBP300 million (HK$3.6 billion), and rightly so. With the United squad carrying the determined resilience of bloodied soldiers in the trenches, City's superstars continue to act like spoiled children vying for attention at a dysfunctional family party.

Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure had a half-time bust-up in the tunnel last weekend at Swansea. Even a midfield plodder like Gareth Barry behaved like a prima donna, shouting with fury at assistant manager David Platt when he was substituted.

The return of abominable Carlos Tevez from exile has sent a signal to the squad that almost anything goes in terms of individual behaviour. That notion is reinforced with the continuing selection of the erratic Balotelli ahead of Edin Dzeko.

Mancini's tactics are bewildering at times and prove that a cautious Serie A approach rarely works in the Premiership. His decision to play three defensive midfielders - Toure, Barry and Nigel de Jong - backfired horribly at Swansea.

Harry Redknapp had his tongue in his cheek when he suggested in January that any Fleet Street journalist could take up the manager's reigns at Carrington and win the title. But he was correct if he was hinting that most top European coaches would make a better fist of it than the former Italian international. So often, Mancini behaves like the eccentric millionaire who insists on counting out coins to pay for a big purchase when he has bags of banknotes lying around.

Player for player, Man City's squad is probably better than both Barcelona's and Real Madrid's. But collectively they are barely fit to be on the same field as the two Spanish giants. Remember, they were knocked out of different European competitions by Napoli and Sporting Lisbon. Ferguson continues to work near-miracles, despite a horrendous injury toll that has sidelined key players for extended periods. For a sometimes-fragile defence, the biggest blow has been the loss of captain and centre-back Nemanja Vidic, who was carried off with a serious knee injury in December and will not play again this season.

Even with a full complement of players, this is not an exceptional Manchester United squad, with the possible exception of their attack. When you are getting ready to sell Dimitar Berbatov, it indicates an embarrassment of riches up front.

But United's reported perilous financial state, under the ownership of the Glazer family, has limited their purchasing power. The re-signing of 37-year-old Paul Scholes remains the only major central midfield acquisition since 2007.

Most neutrals would prefer for the Red Devils not to win their fifth league title in six seasons and see another team lift the trophy. But Devils' delight seems the most likely outcome. As one unnamed ex-Man City star muttered this week: 'I am dreading what the Man United fans will say to us at the end of the season if they win yet another title.'