Rampant United returns to scene of title heartache
The anguish at losing the English Premier League trophy after last year’s final match at Sunderland has been a motivating force at Manchester United all season.
Just how much will become clear when Man United visits Sunderland on Saturday holding a 15-point lead over second-place Manchester City in the title race.
When United’s last match ended at Sunderland in May, the players were already preparing to celebrate a 20th title. But City scored two late goals against Queens Park Rangers to claim the trophy on goal difference.
“It was one of those situations, going into the Sunderland game, where we didn’t think we had a chance,” United defender Chris Smalling said. “But to get so close in the end to winning the title, makes it even worse.”
The players were told by manager Alex Ferguson to never forget the heartache at the Stadium of Light.
“The way we lost the title at Sunderland has been a motivating force all of this season,” Smalling said. “Even when we’ve been a goal behind, there have been a lot of comebacks to get things from games.
“I think people have been looking back at last season and you don’t want to experience that feeling again.”
The comfortable cushion over City means United can afford to have one eye on the FA Cup quarterfinal replay at Chelsea less than 48 hours after the Sunderland game.
“I have to make sure I have some freshness in the team because we also have Chelsea on Monday lunchtime,” Ferguson said. “It is a big ask for our squad and something we need to concentrate on because I need to make sure I pick the right teams.”
City manager Roberto Mancini has conceded the title with nine rounds to go.
“It is over – but this doesn’t change anything,” Mancini said. “We should do our best from now until the end. “Every top team, when you can’t win the title, should play well and try to win all the games. We also have the FA Cup semifinal [against United or Chelsea].”
For City, the mission is keeping hold of second place as it prepares to host Newcastle on Saturday only four points ahead of Chelsea, which is at Southampton.
A point behind Chelsea in fourth is Tottenham, which is looking to avoid a third straight league loss when it travels to Swansea.
“We have to get our act together for the rest of the fixtures to achieve our objective,” Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said. “We have done excellent enough to bridge the gap before, but now with two league defeats our opponents are closer to us and we have to recognise this change.”
Arsenal is four points behind Tottenham in fifth, and there’s no room for error with nine matches left.
“We still have matches left to fix the situation and to try to meet our objectives,” Arsenal defender Nacho Monreal said. “It is logical that people talk because the situation has not been as it should be, but the players and club in general have to ensure that doesn’t affect us.”
Arsenal is Reading’s first opponent since Nigel Adkins was hired to manage a team which is only off the bottom of the standings because it has scored more goals than Queens Park Rangers.
Reading is seven points from safety and four behind Wigan.
“Everyone has written us off,” Adkins said. “But it is a great challenge, isn’t it? Let’s dream and go for it.”
Wigan hosts Norwich on Saturday, while QPR isn’t in action until Monday’s London derby at Fulham.
“We can get out of it,” QPR manager Harry Redknapp said. “We’re playing well. If we were in bad form I’d be more worried.”
In Saturday’s other games, West Ham hosts West Bromwich Albion and Stoke is at Everton. In Sunday’s only game, Villa hosts Liverpool.