“I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”
Julius Caesar (III, i, 60 – 62)
There is, of course, more than one reason to moderate any temptation to engage in Caesar’s hubris this spring, despite Manchester United’s increasingly powerful position in the Premier League title race. With just seven games remaining United lies five points clear of crosstown rivals Manchester City. Moreover, United can look forward to a series of fixtures – the derby at Eastlands aside – against teams in the lower reaches of the league.
Indeed, upcoming games against Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa and Everton, before the derby, should on current form at least, bring United 12 points. And if Sir Alex Ferguson’s men achieve that minor feat, the Reds can win the Premier League title, or will have already, at Eastlands on 30 April.
Confidence, perhaps, but many fans will ask the simple question: why not? After all, this is a relentless United side that is powering towards a 20th domestic title, seemingly unwilling to countenance its own limitations in pursuit of points and glory.
There have surely been far better United sides than this – at least three under Ferguson’s watch at Old Trafford over the past 25 years – but few were more determined. This is a trait of character demonstrated amply during the Reds’ 10 wins in the past 11 domestic fixtures since humiliating defeat at Newcastle United in January. What a turnaround it has been.
The weekend fixture against QPR is followed rapidly by the short trip to Wigan next week – two games that United expect to win. Ferguson will demand no less. And with City facing in-form Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday, Reds need no conceit to foresee a title-winning position emerging over the next few days.
Yet, while confidence in the stands is now at a season’s high, few United players will be anything other than professional in the pursuit of this title. This, despite the wild fist-pumping on-pitch celebrations that 7,000 traveling Reds witnessed at Ewood Park on Monday night.
“[The celebrations at Blackburn] were blown out of all proportion,” veteran defender Rio Ferdinand told ManUtd.com on Wednesday.
“Since I have been at the club, for the last 10 years, it has been a hard place to go. We have not had good results there and we wanted to put that right and make sure we got a good result.
“We are in the position we would like to be in at this stage of the season but it is not over, and I don’t think it is a time that says we won the league. Those celebrations weren’t because we thought it was over, it was because we got a good result at a place where, a couple of years ago, they helped stop us winning the league. So it was nice to get one back over them.”
But it is not solely United’s form that has fans counting the points before they are secured, to bastardise an old expression. Over at Eastlands the pressure, building for weeks while Ferguson’s side continued winning, seems to have finally told, with club official Patrick Vieira making two cack-handed attempts at engaging in media-friendly ‘mind games’ over the past fortnight.
Then, over in Abu Dhabi, an ill-advised mass-media briefing this week can only have piled more pressure on Roberto Mancini, with the word loud and clear – in three national newspapers – that the Italian’s job is dependant not solely on a title-winning conclusion to the campaign, but his ability to reign in the disparate and volatile factions at Eastlands. Good luck with that one, Roberto.
Meanwhile, on the pitch City has dropped points at Stoke City and then again, at home, to Sunderland last weekend. How different it is to the autumn, when press and, indeed, City fans proclaimed the title heading to Eastlands, fait accompli.
Not so. Mancini is now feeling the strain, and with the errant striker Mario Ballotelli doing his best to undermine his manager’s every move, there is a genuine risk of City’s title challenge blowing up in spectacular style. Arsenal is more than capable of ended the race as a contest by 6pm Sunday.
Even if Arsène Wenger’s north Londoners do not inflict catastrophic defeat on City, three away fixtures in the next four before the derby ensure no easy points for a Blues side that has become shot-shy on the road this season.
That level of ostentation is certainly a dangerous outlook for United – players and fans alike – but, even so, its bedfellow schadenfreude has certainly raised its head from the parapet this week. This is a run-in fans are enjoying, even if Ferdinand will have none of it.
“There is still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the season, when the trophies are handed out,” insists Ferdinand.
“We have to make sure we apply ourselves in the right way for every game. If we do that, put in the performances and get the results we want, we will hopefully be lifting the trophy at the end of the season. We know it can change very quickly as well, from being on a great run to having a dip. We have been there before.
“The only thing on our minds is to keep winning each game and not look beyond that. It is a cliché and it is boring, but that is the way it is. It is quite simple. Black and white. The next game is the most important one. You just have to keep ticking off the fixtures and winning games.”
Ferdinand, potentially in his final season with the club, could say little else. Certainly, there should be no repeat of United’s victory at Norwich that came so late and smacked, dare one say it, of complacency. After all, Ferguson’s side could still affect the title race negatively from here on in. In the old cliché, it is United’s to lose.
Few expect that now though – the Ides of March inflicted its damage firmly on City. And as Cesear might once have said, supporters’ confidence in the final outcome is only hubris if United fail.