Moyes' meltdown shows the game is over for United
In a season of glorious unpredictability, one thing is certain: losing six of your opening 20 games condemns you to a mid-table finish
As the poppers and corks erupted to bid adieu to the past and ushered in the future this week, there was one thing everyone merrily agreed upon . . . the 2013-14 season is shaping up to be the most unpredictable EPL title race in years.
Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham remain in the mix. Even Manchester United, despite failing to beat Spurs in what was surely a must-win game for the reigning champions, are in with a shout, albeit a distant, muffled one.
Of course, you write off Manchester United at your peril, more so with the January transfer window now open. But manager David Moyes' reaction to the 2-1 home defeat at the hands of a reborn Tottenham was telling. He reacted with the irritability of a thick-headed bear enduring the day after an indulgent woodland social.
United's sixth Premier League defeat of the season means they are 11 points behind leaders Arsenal, and among their main rivals, only Everton failed to win on New Year 's Day. One statistic says it all; the average finishing position of EPL teams who have lost six of their opening 20 games is ninth. Surely, United's hopes of retaining the title are in tatters.
The spectacular party thrown by Alex Ferguson during his 25-year reign - a bash which saw silverware, titles and European nights fall like confetti from the glittering disco ball - looks well and truly over.
Moyes' blistering attack on referee Howard Webb for failing to award his bedraggled warriors a late penalty against Spurs was not too dissimilar to a hobo shouting at the wagon-yard pigeons after missing the last freight train out of Dodge City.
He reacted with fury after Ashley Young was caught by Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. "It was an incredible decision, probably one of the worst I've seen," he ventured before launching a second verbal salvo at Webb for showing a yellow card to Adnan Januzaj for diving. "That was a terrible decision," spat Moyes.
It has become horribly fashionable for managers to spew mendacious nonsense at refs in their post-match interviews. The unexpected fire in Moyes' retort was not of the kind that glows from a battle-hardened belly. It came from a thrashing mind finding itself in a diminishing corner.
His trademark coolness and sotto voice departed in a fit of panic as the pressure finally broke ranks and ran amok through his sensibilities.
"The team played really well," he insisted.
Hardly. The United defence decided to sleep walk their way into 2014 as was clear when Christian Eriksen nodded in Spurs' second after the break.
There was a collective feeling after the final whistle that a United side under Ferguson would have ground out a point if not a last-gasp winner. Not only is the title surely lost, but a Champions League place might be a finish too far if the fragility continues. Some signings this month might offer fast-acting pain relief for the post-Ferguson hangover but the New Year priorities have surely changed for the champions.
So who shall claim the crown come May?
Manchester City also started the season under new management and Manuel Pellergrini's commitment to attacking football is beginning to play off after the slew of horror shows on the road.
Sides are being swept away at The Etihad and few would ridicule crystal-ball gazers predicting the title is to return to the other side of Manchester.
Chelsea's Jose Mourinho have also reversed the below-par performances that led many to suggest his return to the EPL to be a grave mistake. His reconstruction of the star-studded stable he inherited is well under way and a point-grabbing machine is emerging.
Anyone who witnessed the second-half demolition job of Southampton at St Mary's will attest Chelsea are morphing into a formidable force, while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's dogged faith in his youthful squad are maintaining their course with the Gunners maintaining their grip on the summit.
Everton have certainly been impressive but the stats prove they are only a few points better off under Roberto Martinez than under Moyes and few believe they have the depth of talent to go the distance.
Tottenham have been rejuvenated under Tim Sherwood but looking back at their form over recent seasons it is hard to see them troubling the Champions League places, let alone claiming the title.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez has gone from hero to zero to devil incarnate to free-scoring angel who can do no wrong. If Brendan Rodgers can keep the momentum going and strengthen his squad during January, the Reds have every chance of celebrating their first title in 24 years.
Congestion also affects the bottom, with all the teams from ninth below dancing with danger should a dip in form coincide with rivals rallying to the cause. Mid-table is becoming a redundant term with 10 teams swimming in the ever-decreasing pool that separates the top from the basement.
Sunderland, West Ham and Crystal Palace remain favourites for the drop, but Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich, West Brom and Swansea are only four points off the relegation zone.
The tension is palpable from tip to toe. The last game of the season at St Mary's will be one to watch with champagne in one hand and aspirin in the other. Saints will take on Manchester United and who knows what will be stake for two teams who personify this season's glorious unpredictability.