Old Trafford might still be recovering from that Real Madrid defeat but Sir Alex and the senior players have been around long enough to know how to re-focus themselves and continue their assault on the competitions still within their control.
Against a manager-less Reading who look destined for the drop, Manchester United’s display was as lacklustre as it has been all season. Yet they emerged with the victory, demonstrating a certain ruthlessness that has characterized the team this year. It might not have been convincing, it might not have been pretty to watch, but it was the result they wanted, especially with Manchester City slipping up, to tighten their grip on the EPL trophy – it’s a vice-like grip that shows no sign of easing up any time soon.
15 points clear of their main rivals with 9 games to go, United are in somewhat of a domineering position; it’s difficult to see City mounting any sort of a recovery now; it’s even more difficult to even conceive of Sir Alex allowing his side to take their foot of the pedal now.
Losing the title to their city rivals last season was evidently a very painful experience for Sir Alex Ferguson and his charges and he seems determined to make sure that not only do they win the title this year, but do it as emphatically as possible.
This season was never about simply taking the title back, or ‘bringing it home where it belongs’ as some would have you believe. It was about ripping it forcefully out of the hands of their arch-rivals as hard as possible and letting them know that United are still the big boys in town; it was, and still is, about sending a message that despite the bottomless pit of oil dollars available at City, they are still a long way from establishing themselves as the dominant force of English football.
Sir Alex once said the second title is the hardest because by then everyone has figured you out and tends to play that little bit harder, faster, and stronger – the additional zip and bite you’ve got to contend with when you carry the mantle of champions. City are finding that out this season.
They haven’t played particularly badly this year but in games where they’ve been stifled and stymied, they haven’t had a player who rises to spark a result. Neither have they managed to force the issue – something United were very good at doing, particularly in the first half of the season.
Back then, it seemed as if United could only start playing properly if they went a goal behind. Even in games where they didn’t deserve a point, much less three, somebody inevitably stepped up to produce the goods and steal the point(s). Think of Southampton at the beginning of the season and van Persie’s two goals in the last few minutes to convert a loss into a victory. Or Hernandez swiping the win for United with that last minute goal at Villa Park. There have been many other similar moments that have dotted this campaign – unfortunately for City, United have had the majority of them.
The simple truth is that City haven’t been as resilient as United have this season. It’s true that they’ve had to cope with injuries, suspensions, and even some refereeing injustices, but when they needed their big players to step forth and make a difference, they have often been found wanting.
It’s often said champions win even when playing badly – United have respected that maxim much more than City have. The usually reliable Sergio Aguero has not been firing on all cylinders this season, partially hampered by injuries. Samir Nasri has gone off the boil, David Silva has struggled for form, and Yaya Toure seems to have lost some of his dominance from last year. Even the normally-reliable Joe Hart has been guilty of a number of clangers this season.
United on the other hand, have been steadily grinding out victories. van Persie has spent much of the season demonstrating he was worth every penny of his transfer fee, Hernandez has provided the crucial goals when van Persie hasn’t, and Ferdinand has proved everyone who thought it was time he retire, wrong.
The focus that the team has displayed in the last 29 matches has been incredible, no doubt greatly aided by the immense experience that the manager has, along with a good number of the senior players. And it has shown, especially in the second half of this season where United have ruthlessly broken down each opponent they’ve faced very patiently, determinedly, and systematically. Crucially, they’ve made sure they don’t lose their heads or panic when things aren’t going their way and that is thanks in no small part to the manager and the senior players.
The likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand are invaluable in guiding the youngsters, mentoring and reminding them of their responsibilities while playing for United. Sometimes we take the value and importance of experience for granted, but right now we’re seeing exactly how important it is, especially when push comes to shove – United are firmly holding their nerve; City are losing theirs.