Sir Alex Ferguson's men deservedly go into the New Year as title favourites with a seven-point Premier League cushion, though champions City will surely bite back hard
By Jack Gaughan
In a way, it’s a shame that 2012 draws to a close on Monday. This is a calendar year that brought one of the most monumental Premier League comebacks – Manchester City snatching the title after being well adrift in April – and a never-to-be-seen-again final day; it has ended in the reigning champions standing alongside their neighbours Manchester United as the only sides seemingly fit to clasp the crown again in 2013.
Neither are flawless - in fact both are littered with faults - but their renewed divisional rivalry over the past 18 months has stoked the fires of supporters, pundits and neutrals, bringing an added passion back to what was fast becoming a relatively mundane season-on-season lethargy as to who finishes top.
That’s why 2013 could be the most incredible year of domestic football yet. The names Robin van Persie, David Silva, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Michael Carrick and Carlos Tevez are reason enough to suggest that.
Without doubt, 2012 belongs to City. They are the kings of English football for the first time in 44 years, pipping Sir Alex Ferguson’s side at the last, but go into the next 12 months loitering seven points behind the leaders, despite an excellent character-charged win at Norwich City on Saturday. Encouraging for them is that following the red card to Samir Nasri, City might have been expected to cave.
Although deservedly kings, the statistics tell a different story. For across Manchester, it hasn’t been the annus horribilis for United that you’d imagine.
Of the 38 league matches played in 2012, United picked up 90 points whereas City managed 83. If that had been a league campaign finishing this weekend the trophy would be nestled at Old Trafford right now. Alas, it isn’t, but points towards the Reds having the momentum going into a New Year where they are fully expected to reclaim what they believe to be rightfully theirs this May.
It will be a final five months of who makes the least slips, whether United can continue to give teams a head start before coming to win in rousing finishes, and serious discussion surrounding the legitimacy of City’s conservative approach to matches, particularly in front of their own fans. Roberto Mancini reverted back to a four-pronged attack at Carrow Road – a tactical switch he might be better pursuing given that they need to begin winning games convincingly. Beating teams forcefully does not win you any more points, but it does put your closest rivals under pressure, knowing that those up the road mean business.
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In that sense, 2013 – the first half of it at least – is a no-lose period for Mancini. The damage ought to have already been done with the home defeat against United, the loss at Sunderland and draws against West Ham and Everton.
But they are able to cling to the memories of Martin Tyler and Guy Mowbray screaming ‘Aguero’, the scenes around the Etihad Stadium and the crestfallen look on Phil Jones’ face next to his manager at the Stadium of Light upon realising they had lost the race at the death. Those recollections will give them faith, the strength to chip away at the seven points and the courage to believe it is possible to do again.
January could become a pivotal month and might kick-start what is to be an incredible journey sooner than expected. On New Year’s Day, United go to Wigan, the scene of the Shaun Maloney-inspired 1-0 defeat last season. They also have to play indifferent Liverpool and Tottenham away before the month is out. City, on the other hand, have Stoke at home – Tony Pulis’ side historically tend to roll over in that fixture – while playing QPR and Fulham after a trip to Arsenal.
That does not detract from the fact that Ferguson’s side are quite rightly favourites to come up smelling of roses at the end of the season. If things go to form, it is difficult to imagine anything but.
However, a stirring end to the campaign for City would not only give them a fighting chance of toppling United, but would put them in excellent stead to continue to ride that wave when the next round of Premier and Champions League fun and games starts in earnest next term. We’ll be there every step of the way.