Despite my attempts to not fall into this trap, like a lot of people I for all intents and purposes crowned Manchester United Premier League champions a couple of months back. And has become proven, yet again, you simply can never declare the title race dead until the trophy’s been handed out.
In my defense, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had an actual title race. Don’t let the points totals, especially from last season, deceive; Chelsea have run away with the league the last two times out, and the season before that Arsenal went undefeated and led the entire year. It looked apparent that United would do likewise this year, particularly when Chelsea’s defense looked ever so porous while Terry and Cech, among others, were out injured.
But here we are, with both Chelsea and United having 6 games left, including one against each other at Stamford Bridge, with only 3 points separating them. If you’d told me that the title race would be this close 2 months ago, I’d have straight up laughed at you.
There’s not really any one thing that explains how United’s come to this point. They haven’t suffered any large decline in form; their only loss in the league in the past month was the one suffered to Pompey on Saturday. Despite making hard work of it, they are still alive in the Champions League (we’ll see if that’s still true tomorrow), and in the last four of the FA Cup.
A few things have happened though. Larsson returned to Sweden in mid-March, while Saha has been injured and Rooney off-form (the 4-1 mauling of Bolton aside), which means goals haven’t been as easy to come by, while Vidic, who had become a cornerstone of the defense, broke his collarbone. But these things can and do happen throughout the season, it’s United bad luck that they have all happened in the last stage of the campaign, whereas teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool had battled similar difficulties earlier on.
But it’s not all on United’s end, though. Chelsea hasn’t lost in any competition since the Liverpool match on January 20th. Since then, players have gotten healthy, new signings (Shevchenko, Obi Mikel, Kalou) have begun settling into the Premier League, and like Liverpool, the team is rounding into form for the run in to the end of the season. They are peaking at the best possible time for a finishing sprint while United seems to be running on fumes and hoping their outstanding start to the season sees them through.
Don’t take this entry the wrong way though. By no means am I certain Chelsea will leapfrog United for their third straight. I do believe Chelsea has a harder fixture list for the final six games (four of Chelsea’s games are against the top 6 in the league), and much like I said for the Liverpool/Arsenal fight for 3rd place, everything will probably be decided when the two teams meet, in the second to last game of the season (thanks FA for moving the game to increase tension, by the way). Which makes it all the better for Chelsea that the match is at Stamford Bridge.
By that time, we’ll know if Chelsea can still do the quadruple, or if United could win the treble. The remaining games to be played before the two teams meet will decide an awful lot as well. Will morale be high because there are still trophies to be played for? How will the two teams have done in the four games before they play each other? Ferguson will have a lot to do to ensure that morale is high, no matter what results United picks up between now and then.
Needless to say, it will certainly be interesting. Thankfully.