Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

A tale of magic and madness at the Bernabeu

Physical confrontation was a recurring theme of Wednesday night's Clasico

Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona was certainly, and somewhat inevitably, not one for the purist – scrappy, aggressive, more drama than entertainment, more petulant chess match than a contest for the ages.

It was also an occasion which served to further highlight both the fantasy and folly which characterizes elite football in the modern era, and the ability of the world’s greatest footballers to excite and exasperate in equal measure.

But all who witnessed this unique spectacle will feel equally privileged to have yet another astonishing example of Lionel Messi’s irrepressible genius to savour.
Messi's two late goals look to have won the tie for Barcelona

To expect, or even hope for, a feast of football at the Bernabeu would have been optimistic to the point of naïve; last November’s 5-0 mauling at the Nou Camp had ensured this particular el Clasico was never going to be an open contest.

Any Madridistas who believed Mourinho would be willing take the game to Barcelona were served ample notice of the Special One’s real intentions in the last two meetings of the sides, in which he laid out the tactical masterplan he hoped would wreck the Catalans’ Champions League hopes.

On Wednesday Mourinho and his players, flushed with success in the Copa del Rey final, sought to harass and to stifle Pep Guardiola’s men once again, to deny space to the likes of Messi and Xavi and to intimidate their rivals with greater aggression and physicality.

And this tried and trusted strategy worked for well over an hour, ensuring a semi-final which pitted many of the world’s greatest footballers against each other never threatened to live up to its Hollywood billing.

Rather than breathtaking skill and flowing football, the recurring theme was instead one of cynicism and petulance, as both sides sought to trick and to pressure the referee into making a decisive call and, in doing so, to tip a delicately-balanced tie in their favour.

In such an environment, controversy was inevitable – and it duly arrived when Pepe was dismissed for what Wolfgang Stark deemed a high and reckless challenge on Dani Alves, who played the part of sniper victim admirably.

The decision proved vital. With Madrid’s Portuguese defender-come-midfield destroyer out of the picture, the brilliance of Lionel Messi was finally given the room to flourish, and it was the little Argentine magician who won the game for Barca with his 51st and 52nd goals of an astounding season.

The first was a reward for a committed and cleverly timed run to the near post when he met substitute Ibrahim Afellay’s pinpoint centre; the second showcased everything that makes a rampaging Messi the most thrilling sight in the world of football: phenomenal acceleration, devastating precision of touch and a cool finish.

This match-winning contribution by the world’s best player had threatened to mask the bitter taste left in the mouth by all that had gone before. But Jose Mourinho ensured this would not remain so, with a post-match rant which was a masterclass in generalization, overstatement and selective memory.

Mourinho's post-match comments are likely to be punished by UEFA

The Special One’s ridiculous allegations of a grand UEFA-endorsed conspiracy to ensure Barcelona remain at the pinnacle of the sport did not even represent the biggest crimes of his ill-advised monologue.  An examination of what he omitted provides far more grounds for criticism.

For in all of Mourinho’s railing against referees, he failed to condemn the persistant monkey chants Dani Alves was subjected to by Madrid fans following the Pepe incident, and for which one can only hope the club will be punished.

He failed to admit that his side’s physical approach and willingness to crowd the referee at every opportunity had left them open to the sort of red card eventually shown to Pepe, or that Marcelo and Sergio Ramos could easily have earned early baths for offences against Messi and Pedro.

And he failed to credit Barcelona’s number 10 for scoring what will surely go down as one of the great goals of the Champions League era.

Mourinho has regularly sought to question the decisions of officials after defeats in big games, often with the primary function of deflecting the attention away from his side’s poor performance, but raising doubts over the validity of this Barcelona team’s success just smacks of sour grapes.

The real reason why the Special One has had a man sent off in each of his last five meetings with Barca lies in the way in which his teams look to play.

If you cede possession to your opponents and seek to pressure them aggressively without the ball, you run a very real risk of attracting unwanted attention from the referee –  and even more so when the team you are playing is particularly adept at making every mistimed challenge look like attempted murder.

Madrid’s approach to the last three Clasico meetings has made a dismissal almost inevitable. Mourinho knew this, but he was taking a calculated risk.

Pepe's red card, rightly or wrongly, proved the turning point in the match

Real managed to win the Copa del Rey because they lasted 120 minutes before going down to 10 men. Had they lasted longer than 70 minutes on Wednesday, there is a strong possibility they would have held out for a 0-0 and gone to the Nou Camp knowing one away goal would put them in a very strong position.

But they didn’t. Madrid’s players were unable to walk the disciplinary tight-rope, and so now go into the second leg all but out of the tie. Despite Mourinho’s post match defeatism, Real will not give up in Catalonia, even though they are in an almost impossible situation.

Madrid must somehow beat Barca by two clear goals at the Nou Camp, without leaving the world's most deadly attacking force any room to hurt them in return. If Mourinho were to pull this off now, it would undoubtedly represent the most astonishing moment in a glittering managerial career.

The smart money is on Barcelona lining up against Manchester United, who have made even lighter work of Schalke in the other semi-final, at Wembley in May. 

Will United gain revenge for their 2009 humiliation in Rome? Or will this exceptional Barcelona side stamp their greatness even more indelibly on the annals of history? 

Whatever happens, just be grateful this wasn't the final.

Friday, 22 April 2011

A humble Madrid spells danger for Barca

Real Madrid have set their egos to one side and embraced "anti-football" in a bid to end Barcelona's domestic and European dominance. The Catalans now face a serious threat to their Champions League hopes

Wednesday's Copa del Rey victory gave Real their first trophy in three years

When Barcelona destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Nou Camp last November, many observers - this writer included - struggled to find the words to do justice to the level of performance we had just witnessed, and to the team which provided it.

It was, for want of a better term, simply brilliant. The best team in the world had not only beaten the side widely accepted as being their closest rivals, they had annihilated them. Schooled them. Humiliated them. Yes, ‘brilliant’ will do.

But brilliance is dependent on circumstance. In football, brilliance is defined not only by the individual or team which produces it, but also by the deficiencies of the other individual or team which make that brilliance possible.

For every act of brilliance on the football pitch, there is a mistake, either technical or tactical, individual or collective, which enables it to happen. And after last November’s thrashing, no one knows this better than Jose Mourinho.

Of course, this Barcelona team are exceptional, and their five-goal Clasico demolition of Real deserves its place among the all-time greatest club performances.

But its greatness can be attributed to the fact that the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were allowed the time and space to exhibit their genius by a combination of Mourinho’s fatally misguided tactical plan and the naïve mistakes of a youthful Real side.

Give Barcelona the room to play and they will destroy you. The lesson was clear, delivered in the most emphatic way possible. The Special One would not need to be told twice.

Which is why last Saturday’s La Liga encounter at the Bernebeu marked a seismic shift in Real’s tactical approach to playing their great rivals.

Rather than trying to impose their own style and dominate Barca, the emphasis for Madrid was very much on stifling Pep Guardiola’s side with a mixture of high intensity pressure and a deep defensive line, only looking for opportunities on the counterattack.

It was what some would call “anti-football” – fundamentally destructive rather than constructive, and far more in line with the approach Mourinho’s Inter endorsed against the Catalans last year.

It was also an approach which drew criticism from many quarters, most notably from Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff and, perhaps more surprisingly, Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano.

"We saw clearly that [Madrid’s] approach was not the right one. Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse," the 84-year-old wrote in his column in Marca.

"Madrid were a team without personality. Barcelona play football and dance while Madrid just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out."

But there was something Di Stefano chose not to highlight, and it was perhaps was the most significant aspect of Saturday’s turgid 1-1 draw: It was the fact that, after five consecutive Clasico defeats, Real had not lost. They had been dominated, certainly, but not beaten.

Mourinho was also criticized for letting the title race die by settling for the draw but, with Barca already eight points clear and carrying the head-to-head advantage afforded them by that 5-0 win before Christmas, the Special One must have considered the title race over.

He had other priorities. To rebuild his players’ fragile confidence that they could at least compete with Barca, to give them the beginnings of a belief going forward into this unique four-game series against the Catalans that they could actually best their great rivals.

And it worked. Only four days after ending their losing streak, Madrid beat Barcelona by a solitary extra time goal in Valencia to triumph in the Copa del Rey final for the first time in 18 years. But even more significantly, they beat Barca the Mourinho way.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe both played crucial roles in Madrid's victory
Unlike their first meeting in November, Real did not walk out onto the pitch for the Copa del Rey final seized by the arrogant delusion that they could match Barcelona blow for blow. Instead, they accepted they would lose the battle for possession, and so concentrated on defending tightly and deep in a bid to limit their opponents as much as possible.

The defensive midfield trio of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and the excellent Pepe ensured there was almost no space for Barca to play tiki-taka football between the midfield and defensive lines, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria pressured high up the pitch in a bid to prevent the Catalans getting into their rhythm.

Mourinho's gameplan was not perfect, and Madrid still rode their luck at times. Iker Casillas rescued his team-mates with fantastic saves on a handful of occasions, and only Pedro's marginally ill-timed run ensured a moment of mesmerising genius from Lionel Messi did not get the reward it surely merited.

But for the most part Real managed to frustrate Pep Guardiola's men, and actually produced a number of clear opportunities of their own through lightning quick counterattacks. Cristiano Ronaldo finally found himself in a position to have a decisive influence over a Clasico, and took his chance brilliantly with that towering injury time header.

It wasn't pretty, but Madrid have finally found a way to beat Barca. All they have had to do is to set egos aside, accept their own footballing inferiority and discard high-held principles of entertainment to embrace "anti-football".

This may not sit right with purists in the Madrid hierarchy such as Di Stefano and Valdano, but Real fans are just grateful to Mourinho for stemming the tide of Catalan victories in the Clasico.

And of course, further glories could be ahead.

The Copa del Rey victory will give the Madrid players a huge psychological boost ahead of the two-legged Champions League semi-final to come, whilst Barca's realisation that the current Real is a much more streetwise and formidable beast than the one brushed aside so easily last November may just raise a little self-doubt.

The one final question which remains is whether Wednesday's extra-time exertions will have taken anything out of either side physically.

Barcelona have a frightningly small squad, an oversight which may yet cost them dear, but there is also a doubt as to whether Madrid can defend so perfectly for what will end up being over six hours of football in less than three weeks against the most fearsome attacking team in world football.

Only time will tell, but Real's victory has provided the best possible prologue to the Champions League semi-finals.

With a new, humble Madrid likely taking to the field next Wednesday, the spectacle is unlikely to match last November's magnificent exhibition. It will, however, be a genuine contest. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Champions League contenders flex their muscles

This week provided all the tension and drama you would expect from the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but also a remarkably high number of goals. Here's my take on the action.

Rooney gives laboured Chelsea the blues

Rooney's clinical 24th minute strike has put United in the driving seat

When the Champions League quarter final draw was made, it was predicted that this contest between England's two most successful teams of the past decade would be the closest to call.

And so it proved. In a week of high-scoring matches and apparently decisive first leg results, only Wayne Rooney's away goal midway through the first half separates Chelsea and Manchester United heading into next Tuesday's return at Old Trafford. But what a crucial goal it could prove to be, and what a time for United to record their first victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.

As a spectacle it was at once uninspiring and yet absorbing, offering more in the way of drama than entertainment. This was perhaps to be expected, given the fact that both teams involved tend to overwhelm their opponents through sheer pressure rather than sheer invention.

Also unsurprising is that in such circumstances, it was a rare piece of invention which ultimately provided the only difference between the two sides. 

A pinpoint diagonal pass from a seemingly-rejuvenated Michael Carrick found the evergreen Ryan Giggs, whose unerring control and awareness allowed  everyone's  favourite foul-mouth Wayne Rooney the chance to once again demonstrate the electrifying talent which goes hand-in-hand with the idiocy he displayed at the weekend, and which makes his occasionally mindless aggression all the more frustrating.

It was a ruthlessly efficient away performance from United. Sir Alex Ferguson's players adhered to his gameplan to the letter, defending in numbers, pressuring high up the pitch and counter-attacking with the pace of Rooney and Hernandez. Testament to its success is the fact that, despite creating the fewer chances, the visitors consistently looked the more dangerous side going forward.

United's cause, however, was helped significantly by a turgid Chelsea display. The chronic lack of width, creativity and, most importantly, urgency in the hosts' attacking play meant they were unable to exert the kind of sustained pressure on the Red Devils' defence which sparked a stirring second half comeback when these two met in the Premier League last month.

David Luiz, both the hero and the villain of that encounter, was sorely missed in the Chelsea defence, especially since his presence would have enabled Branislav Ivanovic rather than Jose Bosingwa to fill in on the right flank - and one suspects the more defensively-minded Serb would not have let Giggs escape his attentions so easily for Rooney's winner.

Up front, the performances of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres provided more ammunition for the argument that the two are at best incapable of playing together, and at worst unwilling to even try and make it work.

Both were bitterly disappointing on the night, but it was nevertheless surprising to see Drogba rather than Torres hauled off midway through the second half, given the big Ivorian still appeared to represent the Blues' best chance of an equaliser.

In spite of their struggles, Carlo Ancelotti's side could, and perhaps should, have scored, with Evra clearing off the line from Lampard and Van Der Sar denying Torres the first goal he desperately needs with an outstanding fingertip save. They will also feel rightly aggrieved to be denied what appeared a stonewall penalty in the last minute, as Evra hauled down Ramires in the box.

But such hardships cannot conceal a performance not worthy of a side which supposedly harbours genuine ambitions of being crowned kings of Europe.

The tie is far from over, but the Blues now face a massive task if their pursuit of owner Roman Abramovich's "Holy Grail" is not to end in failure once more. United will surely fancy their chances of seeing off the West Londoners at home next week and keeping alive their dreams of Sir Alex's third Champions League triumph.

Whatever the outcome at Old Trafford next week, the victor will most likely meet Schalke in the semi-finals after a quite astonishing night of football at the San Siro on Tuesday.

Schalke stun ragged Inter

Raul's 54th minute strike proved the turning point in a wonderful match

In one of the most entertaining Champions League matches of recent years, mid-table Bundesliga outfit Schalke proved they are not in the quarter finals simply to make up the numbers with an emphatic humiliation of defending champions Inter in their own back yard.

Such an outcome couldn't have looked less likely 20 seconds in, with Inter midfielder Dejan Stankovic catching Manuel Neuer off his line from all of 45 yards with a technically sublime volley to give the hosts the lead.

However, this piece of brilliance was eventually overshadowed by a brave and inspired performance from the German visitors, as they ruthlessly exploited glaring weaknesses in the Inter defence to score five away goals and all but book their place in the semi-finals for the first time in their history.

Just as Barcelona were commonly regarded as the "team to avoid" in the quarter-final draw, Schalke were the team everybody wanted to draw - largely because of their lack of star names and indifferent league form,  the latter of which recently cost Felix Magath his job.

But new boss Ralf Rangnick has galvanised the Bundesliga  underachievers in a few short days, bringing back players ostracised by Magath into the fold and seemingly getting the players to enjoy their football once more. And enjoy it they did on Tuesday, thanks in no small part to some truly criminal Inter defending.

The Serie A champions can rightly point to the fact that Christian Chivu & Andrea Ranocchia are not their first choice centre-back pairing, but rather one forced upon coach Leonardo by the absences of Lucio and Walter Samuel.

Nevertheless, conceding five goals at home is unacceptable in any circumstances, and now only the mother of all comebacks in Gelsenkirchen this Wednesday can preserve the Italians' hopes of becoming the first team to defend their title in the Champions League era.

Of course, any team which can boast the likes of Eto'o, Milito and Sneijder in it's offensive ranks cannot be completely written off. That said, under Rafa Benitez and now Leonardo, Inter have proven time and again this season that they are now the European champions in name only.

This is not the same team as the one which swept all before it under Mourinho last year - even if it does contain many of the same personnel - and also appears to be one which is in fairly urgent need of a freshening up.

Whether Leonardo will be the man given the time to undertake that task is no longer certain, with the Schalke humiliation following hot on the heels of a potentially decisive mauling in the Milan derby last weekend.

For Schalke, the immediate future looks somewhat brighter.

They have taken a big step towards the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition for the first time in their history and, in Raul, they have a Champions League predator of the highest quality.

His well taken goal in the San Siro extends his lead at the top of the competition's all-time scoring charts to 14, and only the brave or the foolish would bet against him adding to his overall tally of 70 before this campaign is over.

If Schalke do make it into the last four, the Premier League's finest will write them off at their peril.

Spurs' dream becomes nightmare in Madrid

Crouch's 15th minute sending off left Tottenham helpless at the Bernabeu

Tottenham's maiden Champions League campaign has been going like a dream, but it took only 15 minutes to turn into a nightmare at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night.

Many observers had predicted the naivety of Harry Redknapp's side at elite European level might prove their undoing towards the business end of this tournament, and it was clear early on that this would be the occasion of Spurs' undoing.

Redknapp's gameplan would surely have been to sit deep, frustrate Real and attempt to use the pace of Bale and Lennon on the counter-attack to provide the service which would make good use of lone striker Peter Crouch's aerial prowess.

Such a plan was undermined from the very start - first by Aaron Lennon's late withdrawal from the match squad through illness, and then five minutes in when slack marking from a corner allowed Emmanuel Adebayor, so often the scourge of Tottenham with Arsenal, to power  a header over the line through the legs of Luka Modric.

Then came the naive mistake which did most to undermine the North Londoners' chances against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid - and ironically, it came from one of the few members of the team who can boast significant Champions league experience.

Peter Crouch's two silly lunges on Sergio Ramos and Marcelo earned a deserved sending off, leaving Spurs a goal down and a man down with well over an hour to play against one of the most fearsome attacking teams in world football, and facing an impossible task.

Redknapp sought to defend and limit the damage, but Mourinho was determined to make the most of this opportunity, and his team's relentless pressure wore Spurs down. Adebayor's second header - making it 10 in 13 games against Tottenham - killed the game, and further strikes from Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo killed of the tie.

It is to Spurs' great credit that they have been no respecters of big names and big reputations in the Champions League this year, but overcoming a four goal deficit against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid looks too much of an ask for Harry Redknapp's talented team.

Such a comeback would surely be the greatest of all the great European nights at White Hart Lane, but it is inconceivable that a more defensively-minded Mourinho team would be so accomodating. The job looks done for Real, and a Clasico semi-final appears to be on the horizon.

"Below par" Barca crush Shakhtar

Dani Alves latched onto a fabulous Iniesta pass to double Barca's advantage

In the aftermath of Wednesday's clash at the Nou Camp, Pep Guardiola described himself as disappointed with what he called a 'below par' Barcelona performance.

His comments say more about the perfectionism which dominates the mindset of the Catalan club than the result, as an occasionally unconvincing Barca side nevertheless destroyed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 to pretty much book their place in the Champions League semi-final.

An arduous journey to Eastern Europe was thought to represent the biggest threat posed by the Ukrainian champions to Barcelona's chances of progress but, as some of us predicted might happen, the Spanish giants managed to kill off this 180 minute tie inside the opening 90 - and all without the steadying presence of Carles Puyol in defence or fit-again Lionel Messi ever reaching his inspired best.

Make no mistake: this was not the most convincing Barcelona home performance of the season. The Catalans looked defensively vulnerable with Sergio Busquets deputising at centre-back, and the worrying number of clear chances created by the visitors will prompt Guardiola to hope Puyol's return to action is a swift one.

Going forward, the deadly duo of Messi and Villa failed to ignite, but their manager will certainly be encouraged by further evidence of the depth of match-winning talent at his disposal.

With Barca's usual suspects enduring a rare quiet night, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves stepped up in spectacular fashion.

Spain's World Cup winner gave his side the lead with a dead-eye finish two minutes in, and followed it up with an exceptional lofted pass through to Alves who, having broken the offside trap, rounded the keeper and finished with aplomb.

Second half goals from Pique, Keita and Xavi mean that despite Rakitskiy's goal for the visitors, Barca carry an unassailable lead to the Ukraine. Guardiola should be able to rest some of his big guns, safe in the knowledge that even a continuation of Shakhtar's formidable home record will not be enough to turn the tide.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Resilient United are worthy champions

Exceptional team spirit and resilience are the hallmarks of this United side

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but the title race is pretty much over. 

Despite the fact that Arsenal and Chelsea will not, and indeed cannot, admit it, and despite Arsene Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti's unwavering public adherence to the mantra of "it's not over yet", it feels as though a choir of fat women ought to be bellowing their lungs out somewhere after this weekend's Premier League results.

How can I be so sure, you may ask, when the Gunners only trail leaders Manchester United by seven points with a game in hand, and when Sir Alex Ferguson's side still face tough tests against both of the sides chasing them in their remaining seven matches?

It might be because, since Arsenal haven't beaten United in any competition since November 2008, with  United emerging victorious in eight of the last 11 meetings between the two sides, I don't think much of their chances of beating the Red Devils at the Emirates next month.

It might also be because, despite what Carlo Ancelotti says publicly, Chelsea have accepted they are now too far off the pace to defend their Premier League crown, and so will focus their efforts on salvaging a disappointing season by finally satisfying owner Roman Abramovich's desire to win the Champions League - thereby possibly making May's league clash at Old Trafford a dead rubber, and reducing Arsenal's chances of getting the United slip-up they will require to become champions.

But it isn't.

Ultimately, the reason why I can see no destination for the Premier League trophy other than Old Trafford has become particularly clear for all to see in recent weeks, and it is this: No matter how unconvincing they may be or vulnerable they may look, this Manchester United team will simply not allow this title to slip through their fingers, and their rivals are incapable of prising it from their grasp.

The month of March provided the last real opportunity for Chelsea and Arsenal to seize the initiative in the title race. Two defeats in a week, at Stamford Bridge and at Anfield, threatened to derail United's inexorable progress towards a 19th league title, and the time was ripe for the chasing pack to ramp up the pressure.

Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea did their bit, defeating the champions-elect, their 'noisy neighbours' and Blackpool to take maximum points from their three matches.

However, the horrendous crash in form they endured from November to February meant the Blues would always be fighting an uphill task to catch the leaders, and last week's draw at Stoke - while being far from the worst result of a difficult season - has provided the straw which breaks the camel's back in terms of their title chances.

If United's stutterings had momentarily left the door to the title slightly ajar for Chelsea, it had been swung wide open for Arsenal.

Had the Gunners beaten Sunderland and Blackburn at the Emirates and West Brom on the road - tough but limited opposition - they would currently trail Sir Alex Ferguson's men by a single point, as well as holding a game in hand over the leaders.

But the trauma of Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham at the end of February appears to  have sparked a fire which has engulfed the North Londoners' season and put paid to their trophy aspirations, with their only win in any competition in March coming in an FA Cup tie against Leyton Orient.

Arsenal's failure to turn up the heat on United in their moment of weakness means the Red Devils' lead at the top of the Premier League stands at seven points with seven matches remaining.

Although the Gunners can close the gap to four by winning their game in hand, any argument that they can still become champions rests on the assumptions both that they will drop less points than United between now and the end of the season and that they are capable of handling the pressure & adversity which must be overcome in a title race - assumptions for which there is little or no evidence.

Should United go on to win their fourth Premier League crown in five years, there can be no argument that they have done so partly as a result of the weaknesses of their rivals.

The inconsistency of Chelsea and Arsenal has been shocking and comical in equal measure at times, as has the lack of ambition shown by Man City boss Roberto Mancini, whose negative tactics and blinkered pursuit of Champions League qualification has stifled his side's ability to play a more active role in one of the most open title races of the past decade.

It is also undeniable that Sir Alex Ferguson's "Class of 2010/11" cannot compare, both in terms of individual or collective quality, either to the treble-winning vintage of 1999 or to the one which, propelled by the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo, dominated English football for three years from 2006 to 2009 and reached two consecutive Champions League finals.

In fact, all of the Premier League's established contenders - with the possible exception of Arsenal - have declined over the last two seasons, and emerging powers Man City and Tottenham have proved themselves not yet ready to mount a sustained domestic challenge.

But to use any of this to argue that no one deserves to win the title this year is just plain wrong.

Sure, this United side will most likely not go down as one of the greatest in the club's illustrious history, but this group of players does possess one particular quality which is truly remarkable, one which sets them apart from every other team in the land. I'm talking about resilience.

Resilience is not simply coming back from a goal or two to win a match, or bouncing back from a bad defeat one week with a victory the week after. It is a mental toughness, an unshakeable belief that whatever the scoreline, whatever the opposition, refereeing injustice or any other setback you may face, you can - nay, will - find a way to win.

United's January comeback win over Blackpool may prove a defining moment

It is a quality which has become synonymous with Manchester United Football Club throughout Sir Alex Ferguson's long reign as manager, but never has it seemed so firmly entrenched within the collective mindset as with the current playing staff at Old Trafford.

Of course, the reason for this could be that, because this United side are more vulnerable than their predecessors, resilience is called upon more than ever before to get them out of bad situations which individual or team errors have gotten them in to.

But, to a large extent, the nature of the explanation is irrelevant as far as the basic point is concerned: it is United's stubborn refusal to lose which has enabled them to keep their noses ahead in the Premier League title race, and it is this same stubbornness which looks increasingly likely to see them over the line.

Manchester United's "never say die" attitude has become the stuff of footballing legend, but this year it also has a basis in cold, hard, statistical fact.

The Red Devils have gleaned 22 extra points from the second half of Premier League matches this season having been in losing or drawing positions at half time, while surrendering just nine from winning or drawing positions - meaning they are 13 points better off in the table as a result of second half performances.

When the same calculation is done for Arsenal and Chelsea, it is found that the Londoners are only five and seven points better off respectively. On average, United's second half performances have given them seven extra Premier League points more than their main title rivals - and seven points just happens to be  the current gap between United in first and Arsenal in second.

But the significance of United's late rallies goes beyond merely points. Their psychological impact can be devastating. One cannot underestimate the effect knowledge of United's overturning of a two goal half time deficit at West Ham had on Chelsea prior to their draw at Stoke - where it was being broadcast on the stadium screens - or on Arsenal before their frustrating stalemate at home with Blackburn.

These comebacks also have a profound influence on the mindset of United's prospective opponents. The reputation which Sir Alex Ferguson's men have earned for finishing matches strongly means that, even when they find themselves in front, teams rarely believe they can close the deal against United.

Consequently, their natural tendency tends to be to try to protect their lead by defending deep in the last twenty minutes of the match, which inadvertantly makes them more vulnerable to the Red Devil's late attacking onslought. In short, United coming back to win has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

If the Premier League trophy does find its way to Old Trafford in May for a record 19th time, it will not be United's typically formidable home record which sticks in the mind. It will be the comeback victories  away from home over Blackpool and West Ham, the earning of a point at Aston Villa when all seemed lost, or Dimitar Berbatov's 88th minute winner over Bolton at Old Trafford which gave a ten-man United side a much-needed three points.

It will be the fact that all of this was achieved in spite of Rio Ferdinand and Antonio Valencia's lengthy absences through injury, in spite of the ageing legs of the remarkable Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, and in spite of the worst year, on the pitch and off it, of Wayne Rooney's career. It will be the overcoming of all this adversity which may serve to convince Sir Alex that his 12th league title as United boss may be among the sweetest of the lot.

By concentrating on the mental strengths of this United side, I have not intended to denigrate its technical qualities.

Wayne Rooney's star may not have blazed this season as it did last, but Nani and Dimitar Berbatov have matured into performers of match-winning quality, Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling have made a decisive impact in spite of their tender years, and in captain Nemanja Vidic, United have probably the best centre-half in world football.

But, as the over-used sporting maxim goes, to win when not playing well is the sign of champions.

After 25 years at the top of the English game, no one knows this better than Sir Alex Ferguson. And it appears his current side know it too. They will win the Premier League, simply because they refuse to lose it.