One down, 11 to go in what could become one of the closest Premier League title races in recent years. Manchester United’s 3-1 victory at White Hart Lane on Sunday was not without good fortune, but three points will increase the pressure Roberto Mancini’s side. After all, rivals will note that United’s trip to Manchester City in April aside, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team faces 10 eminently winnable games in the Premier League.
Victory against Tottenham Hotspur came despite the home side enjoying more possession, territory and shots at goal, although media summary of the hosts ‘dominating’ the match in north London is entirely not borne out in the game’s statistics.
That said, this was one of the few occasions that United was out-passed this season, with the Spurs recording more than 500 passes in north London. The hosts also attempted three times as many shots at goal, although only six of 18 found the target – a telling statistic on a day when United converted 40 per cent of chances created by the visitors.
But those are mere details. The big picture – another three points for United in a hugely difficult away fixture – is far more important.
“It’s an entirely unbelievable result,” admitted Ferguson.
“I would say that’s our hardest away game of the season. They’d only lost one game; it was their first home game, I think, against City, when they had a few injury problems. That was the magnitude of our challenge today. And, in fairness, the first half we were never at the races. It was a great performance by Tottenham and maybe we got our tactics wrong in the first half.
“In the second half we improved, we told them at half-time to get pushed up on their back four and not let them build up their play. After the second goal we played very well. We had a bit of luck, and we scored right on half-time with our first shot on goal.
“Tottenham are a very good team and this is only their second defeat at home since the start of the season. It was a massive result.”
Indeed, the advantage may now just be with United, despite City’s narrow Premier League lead. After all, with just 11 games to go United now play just one of the present top six – City – and five of the bottom half-dozen. By contrast, the Blues face four of the top six, against just two of those near the foot of the table. City retains a two point lead and a healthy goal difference advantage, but the fixture list suggests this is anybody’s game.
It’s this situation that had Ferguson confidently predicting last week that United’s trip to Eastlands on 30 April is set up nicely as the clichéd title decider. Nothing about the result at White Hart Lane will change the legendary Scot’s viewpoint.
“We showed a determination to get the result,” Ferguson added.
“We’ve played all the big teams since January, it was a really busy spell and we’ve come through that and played well in most of the games We know exactly what we have to do. You can drop surprise points and I think both sides will, but the important thing is to drop less points than our opponents. A battling performance today tells you that we are up for it.”
United faces a resurgent West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford next, followed by a trip to the Midlands to face the sinking ship Wolverhampton Wanderers. The trip to City aside, Ferguson will look only to the final day match with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light as one where United could genuinely drops points.
Meanwhile, the Blues travel to Swansea City next weekend and then face managerless Chelsea at Eastlands in a fortnight. With the mutinous Chelsea dressing room having scored victory over yet another post-José Mourinho manager, the west Londoners may well now receive the ‘bump’ Roman Abramovich is seeking.
But it is to City’s trip to Arsenal that all eyes will now turn. Indeed, Arsène Wenger’s men have gone from hopeless to players in a matter of weeks. Should Robin van Persie remain fit, Mancini will know that points could be dropped at the Emirates.
Given the fixture programme the Eastlands derby could well see United having already taken over at the head of the Premier League table. Ferguson’s men may have pulled more than one rabbit out of the hat recently, but the Scot will be disappointed if United don’t put very close to maximum points on the board over the next eight games.
After all, the injury crisis that engulfed United during the winter is coming to an end, with only long-term absentees Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić set to miss the run-in. Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley will return in the coming week, while Michael Owen is available for selection and Anderson made the bench for United’s win at Tottenham.
Pressure is building though – a situation few of Mancini’s men have experienced, and certainly not as a group. Mancini, officially at least, has three Serie A titles. The first coming as Juventus was stripped of Serie A during Calciopoli, the next two with the Old Lady in Serie B. How the Italian will react during the presssure, drama and intensity of a Premier League run-in is, as yet, unknown.
Meanwhile, seven of Mancini’s players have won championships over the years: former Arsenal men Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, and Kolo Touré, together with Edin Džeko, Yaya Touré, Carlos Tévez and Nigel de Jong. But it is hard to see where Tévez or Kolo will feature during the run-in, while Nasri, Džeko and de Jong have spent more time on the bench than pitch this season. In truth, for Mancini’s most important players this is a first.
There will be swings over the next 11 games of course, but Ferguson will now be content with United’s position. That says much. For all City’s wealth, nothing buys the Scot’s experience.
“We’ve got experience. We won’t get nervous, we’re enjoying it,” Ferguson added. And on a day when United secured three points when frequently under the kosh, the Reds’ luck may be turning as well.
[table id=13 /]