“The ides of March are come.
Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”
Julius Cesar (III, i)
There was a time, shortly after Manchester United stretched the club’s Premier League lead to five points last April, when United Rant threw caution to the wind. “Hubris be damned,” was the cry, with the Reds’ lead seemingly unassailable and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in imperious form. What other conclusion should have been drawn?
“Supporters’ confidence in the final outcome is only hubris if United fails,” concluded Rant in not the first, and by no means the last, conspicuously fatuous declaration of outrageous confidence.
Fate, Rant should have known, has a penchant for taking down the conceited. And then some, as it turned out.
Yet, as if no lesson has been learned, no temptation to caution ingrained into the mindset, it is once again deliciously alluring to declare the Premier League title race over. This is no longer a title race some say, although it may well be pining for an injection of competition.
Thus the past weekend’s fixtures served only to reinforce a belief that United, despite well documented flaws in Ferguson’s squad, is racing towards domestic championship number 20, with little challenge in the making. Whatever the evidence in mitigation, Ferguson’s side appears to be superior.
After all, the Reds’ narrow victory over Fulham at Craven Cottage last Saturday, coupled with Manchester City’s failure to beat Liverpool at Eastlands, has increased United’s lead to nine Premier League points. In each of the past 10 Premier League seasons a lead as of 1 February, any lead in fact, has proven to be conclusive.
Looking to the future provides little in contradictory evidence either. United’s programme over the next 13 matches includes fixtures against City, Chelsea and Arsenal, but also a string of games with those in the bottom half of the Premier League table. City and Chelsea visit Old Trafford, while United’s trip to Arsenal is the Reds’ sole fixture against one of the ‘big four’ that takes place away from home.
Indeed, cup games aside, Ferguson should take confidence from a fixture list that includes Everton, Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City, West Ham United, Reading and Sunderland, prior to City’s visit to Old Trafford in early April.
Matches against Real Madrid in the Champions League will add spice to the programme over the next month, but the pair of fixtures against the Spanish giants serves also to underline quite why United’s nine point gap is so exciting coming into the business end of the season.
Yet, it takes not an oracle to predict the pitfalls of over-confidence. United’s fall from grace last season, despite holding a commanding position six games out, is ample warning enough. Defeat to City at Eastlands, followed by the home draw against Everton, and the loss at Wigan Athletic, precipitated a devastating late-season collapse.
In similar, if not quite as dramatic circumstances, Chelsea overcame a nine point deficit to United at Christmas in the 2009/10 season to catch the Reds with just three matches to play. Didier Drogba’s offside goal in April 2010 sealed a 2-1 win at Old Trafford and swung the title race Chelsea’s way.
Few United supporters will forget 1996, when Ferguson’s side overcame a 12-point deficit to overtake Newcastle United and win the Premier League. Kevin Keegan lost the run of himself and Eric Cantona fulfilled every United dream in a memorable campaign.
No wonder Sir Alex is prompt to calm expectations at Old Trafford, warning his players that peril lies in presumption and success in concentration. Twice has United been overtaken from a winning position in recent seasons; a third calamity Ferguson would find hard to accept.
“Teams will drop points. Not just us but Manchester City will drop points, absolutely,” warned the 71-year-old coach ahead of United’s victory at Fulham.
“It’s a certainty Chelsea and Arsenal will drop points. We’ll probably drop two or three ourselves, but the important thing is accepting the challenge that every game is just as difficult as the rest.”
Meanwhile, across town Roberto Mancini continues to rally his troops; words of failure banished to the sidelines and hope prevalent in every breath. It is all the Italian can do with his troops now talking a far better game than is truly being executed.
There is, of course, the fall-back of last season’s dramatic finish. United’s epic failure last spring was the very antithesis of Ferguson’s managerial career, where victory from improbable positions has become normality. United’s failure – by corollary City’s success – provides all the ammunition Mancini requires to keep his blues in the hunt for honours this season.
“Last year we recovered eight points in six games so I don’t know why it can’t happen this year,” said Mancini.
“We have 15 games and they have to play in FA Cup and the Champions League so the season is long – three months – and we are confident. It is enough to recover three or four points in three games. For us it is important to play the derby two or three points behind and we have time to recover these points.
Mancini has little to lose either, with the Italian widely recognised as a ‘dead man walking’ ahead of a managerial change at Eastlands this coming summer.
Ferguson, meanwhile, has drawn much from last season’s failure – not least a determination that the cautious manner in which United ceded control to City at Eastlands last April will never be repeated. Defeat in east Manchester, it turns out, is an admonition that has shaped the current campaign.
It is evidence, some might say, that the chance of United repeating last season’s collapse is remote. And yet, while that observation is true, the lesson of Sergio Aguero’s 93rd minute Eastland’s title-winner last May is clear: conceit is not only the original sin of man, but it’s most enduring.