By Oliver Platt
The last time Sir Alex Ferguson seriously dipped his toes in the waters of the January transfer market, he struck gold - twice. That was six years ago. Nemanja Vidic arrived from Spartak Moscow for £7 million and Patrice Evra followed for £5.5m from Monaco. Both have now captained Manchester United.
Since then, his most significant winter purchase has been Anders Lindegaard, for £3m from Aalesund. There has been the occasional, usually unsuccessful, investment in youth - it didn't work out for Zoran Tosic or Manucho. But very, very few of Ferguson's mid-season signings in recent years have played a significant part in the final months of the league campaign. Even Vidic and Evra needed time to adjust - they both appeared only as 83rd minute substitutes in the 2006 League Cup final to win their first silverware with the club.
It was unsurprising, therefore, to hear him express his disinterest in adding to his squad next month in a recent interview with Yahoo. "The January transfer market has never been the best transfer market and that has been proven over the years with very few big transfers happening," he said. "All the big transfers happen in the summer."
It has certainly not stopped him from adding to his collection of Premier League titles. Looking back past Vidic and Evra to the turn of the millennium, Ferguson has since paid up only to acquire Louis Saha and Diego Forlan in January. Saha's form was good but Arsenal's 'Invincibles' ran away with the title anyway, while Forlan did not score a goal until the following season.
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Away from the top of the table, Nikica Jelavic scored nine goals in 13 games to help Everton rise to seventh. Pavel Pogrebnyak was good for a goal every other game as Fulham pushed into the top half having finished 2011 in 13th. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Djibril Cisse had no trouble finding the net, either, while the latter's namesake Papiss was sensational for Newcastle.
Ferguson made a signing, too. Paul Scholes did not cost a penny in transfer fees but his influence very nearly proved the difference. Scholes made his first start in the 3-0 victory over Bolton on January 14. That was the beginning of a run of 11 wins out of 12 for United - they paused only to draw away to Chelsea. Scholes played in every single match of that run as the 19-time champions turned a three-point deficit into an eight-point lead at the summit of the top flight.
City, though, had an ace of their own to play. They had one more chance to take the championship when United stuttered against Wigan and Everton; Mancini had made amends with Carlos Tevez just in time for the Argentine to be reunited with Sergio Aguero. Eight goals between them in big wins over West Brom and Norwich put the eventual champions back on the right track.
United are top of the table by six points and have the return of Vidic to full fitness to look forward to, but there is a sense that there is much more to come from City, for whom the likes of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure have not yet returned to the consistently excellent form they displayed last season.
Neither has Mancini expressed the same reservations as Ferguson when it comes to spending in January. Why would he? His job is on the line; in the cut-throat world of modern European football, nothing less than the title, you would imagine, will do after City's poor Champions League showing, and the winding down of Pep Guardiola's year-long sabbatical will further tempt Sheikh Mansour to enforce changes if he feels they are necessary.
The doubt over Mario Balotelli's future has only heightened speculation linking City with a new striker. Radamel Falcao has frequently been mentioned, while Stephan El Shaarawy will surely be in demand. Only this week, Spanish daily Mundo Deportivo claimed that Txiki Begiristain, the club's new director of football, had travelled to Brazil in an attempt to persuade Neymar to leave Santos for the Etihad Stadium.
Lamenting a lack of value in the January window is one thing; ruling out any business entirely is another entirely. Ferguson, though, had no hesitation in confirming his plans - or lack of them. "I will not be bringing anybody in in January - definitely not," he has insisted. United are top of the league, but they are set to continue with their deficiencies in defence and midfield unaddressed and that could hand City the initiative in the New Year.
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