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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. 

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