By Jack Gaughan
"I always say that December is a month that tells you everything," Sir Alex Ferguson said, with not even the slightest hint of a smirk, following Manchester United's pulsating 4-3 win against a superb Newcastle United. If that is true, the title race is well and truly over. Don't bother with the final five months lads – it's all done with. Flippancy aside, it is going to be an uphill struggle for Manchester City now, seven points adrift.
Roberto Mancini's side have dropped eight points from five matches in the month, whereas United have failed to win only once. While Ferguson's side equalled this poor run of form to hand City the title last season, the differing fortunes of the sides on Boxing Day could see Chicharito's 90th minute winner at Old Trafford deliver the knockout blow to the reigning champions.
United, for the majority of yesterday afternoon, were second best against a Newcastle team who looked confident in possession and assertive when defending. But, as is so often the case, individual brilliance – largely from the excellent Michael Carrick - meant the hosts would take the points. In all honesty, they are playing not quite as badly as City. This season’s race to the top is not so much who can produce the best football, but who can make the fewest mistakes.
That would not stop Ferguson, rightly, pointing towards the bravery of his players, who again came from behind to win in the league. It was the third time this season that they had gone one-nil down in the opening five minutes at home, such is their insistence on giving opponents the best possible chance to embarrass them. That stat is simply unheard of.
"I wish it was the last game of the season, but the one thing it tells you is the courage of our team. They have fantastic courage, never give in, missed a host of chances in the second half and improved their game enormously [from the first half] – which we had to do," the manager said.
It did have a similar feel to the final game of last season: there was a last minute winner, plenty of goals and a disconsolate losing manager in the dugout at the Stadium of Light. Ferguson was delighted, not only because of the fight, but because he felt justice was done for a refereeing performance which may have seen Mike Dean hounded out of the city shortly after the final whistle.
Dean chose to overrule his linesman in the first half to award a goal to the visitors despite Papiss Cisse standing in an offside position and having a direct impact on play. Ferguson remonstrated with the officials moments before the second half was due to kick off – red in the face and visibly irate – which may result in retrospective punishment depending on the referee’s report.
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"We had a lot of bad decisions against us in the first half and sometimes that can demoralise a team. But not giving in is a great quality to have. I’m pleased. Three times going down and three times coming back to go on and win it is a really significant result for us. It puts us in a good position," Ferguson said.
Meanwhile, at the same time in the North East, Mancini was bemoaning a lack of goals. From August through to November, the goal tally not being as swelled as last season was not portrayed as a problem, as long as they were winning matches.
That is not the case anymore, and City don't have the luxury of being able to rely on being bailed out of games by Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney – the best strike force in Europe at present. Rooney is set to be absent for two to three weeks with an injury sustained in training on Christmas Day.
Although Rooney was poor against Swansea City, they missed his presence yesterday. Ferguson afterwards paid tribute to the striker’s replacement, Chicharito, to boost the Mexican’s confidence more than anything – he was not at the races and fluffed a number of opportunities before finally finding the net. "His movement and courage is unbelievable – he deserved his goal today," Ferguson said. Knowing the extent of Rooney's injury, Fergie could not really say anything less.
His position does look enviable from Mancini’s point of view, though. City had 19 shots on goal against Sunderland and failed to find the net. United just 12 and scored four. City falter and fumble, United press on. Never say it’s over, but it is difficult to imagine the Premier League trophy being anywhere but Old Trafford at the end of May on current form.