When Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League at the end of the first week of December and trailed rivals City by five points in the Premier League, critics were lining up to declare this was the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance of English football.
How many times have we heard the prophets of doom circle round Old Trafford like vultures celebrating the fall of the emperor and hungry to feast on the demise of the greatest club in the world? But maybe this really was the end? With Fergie reaching his 70th birthday on New Year’s Eve, the critics said, the master had finally reached his ‘sell-by’ date and untold riches from the Middle East made it inevitable that the fat cats across the City were destined to take United’s crown.
Cocky City fans were strutting around like they owned the place in the illusion that one trophy in 35 years and a freak 6-1 win at Old Trafford suddenly made them the kings of the castle. Blues fans were queuing up to tell radio phone-ins that ‘this is their time’ and ‘United are a spent force who have reached the end of the road’.
But hang on a minute. This is no ordinary man we are talking about, and this is no ordinary football club. Over the past 25 years, every challenge has spurred Fergie’s Manchester United to fight back. Whether that means re-building or reaching another level, the Red machine has always delivered and each success has been more glorious than the one before.
Ever since Fergie’s men have emerged from the shadow of Liverpool’s incredible dynasty, United have found the answer to every challenge to their supremacy. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were the biggest threats that forced United to step up, and now it is the irresistible force of Roberto Mancini’s Arab backed City.
To achieve the seemingly impossible is the greatest incentive there is for a club like Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson is just as hungry for success as he was when he first walked into Old Trafford 25 years ago. This is why United will not roll over and die like some would like.
Anything other than defeat against Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Eve will take United clear at the top of the Premier League, just three weeks after trailing City by five points and an avalanche of a goal difference. A win will put United three points in front and a repeat of the 5-0 scoreline in their last two wins against Fulham and Wigan will cut City’s goal advantage to zero.
The fact that City don’t travel to Sunderland until New Year’s Day and United play first on Fergie’s 70th birthday is the perfect scenario for the red half of Manchester. For Steve Kean’s battle-weary Rovers entering Old Trafford in these circumstances could be like being fed to the lions. All this in the face of a horrific catalogue of injuries that has tested United’s resources to the limit in the month of December.
Whatever happens next, just don’t make the mistake of writing off United because when the going gets tough the tough get going and Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams have shown time and time again that they know how to deliver in the second half of the season.
Fergie admitted for the first time this week that City are favourites to win the title. And the great man knows overhauling the noisy neighbours who have grown into the biggest threat yet to his all-conquering empire represents arguably his biggest ever challenge.
But that in a nutshell is all the motivation United need to win a record breaking 20th league title.
PS: Do not be surprised if Dimitar Berbatov comes back stronger than ever and bags a hatful of goals in the second half of the season. He’s already scored more goals in six days – with four against Fulham and Wigan – than Fernando Torres has scored in the Premier League since he signed for Chelsea last season.