By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
The ease with which Manchester United are romping to the Premier League title has devalued the achievement in the eyes of many observers.
As the theory goes, how can the champions elect be regarded as outstanding when the competition has been so sub-standard? Especially when they can lose at home to their principal title rivals in Spring and still peer down from a great height to the runners-up spot 12 points below.
From the outside, the path to United’s 13th Premier League coronation, and 20th in total, has been a stress-free stroll.
CITY WIN THE BATTLE...
Milner opens the scoring
Kompany nets unfortunate OG
Aguero scores fantastic winner
...UNITED WINNING THE WAR
The equation is thus: United can only be denied the title if Manchester City win their seven remaining league games and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team accrue their worst seven-game points haul for eight years. No bookmaker in the land would give you remotely generous odds on that dual possibility.
Yet, like Barcelona in the Spanish top tier and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, United appear to be suffering from their own relentless brilliance.
The two clubs widely believed to be their closest challengers before a ball was kicked this season have provided inadequate competition. Given their resources, City have mounted a feeble title defence, while it soon became apparent that Chelsea’s campaign of poisonous upheaval would be garlanded by a cup triumph at best.
Of the other heavy and super-middle weights, Tottenham and Everton have punched above their division, Arsenal and Liverpool marginally below theirs, but, then, few had predicted beforehand that this aristocratic quartet would be vying for anything other than the final Champions League place.
United have simply been too good, too often, for everyone. A haul of 77 points from 31 matches has blown away all-comers with the kind of force not seen since the first of Jose Mourinho’s two title-winning Chelsea sides in 2004-05.
Even after conceding three derby-day points, the table shows that Sir Alex’s 2012-13 collective are as much of a juggernaut as Chelsea were back in the day when Mourinho was wearing a grey overcoat. United lack the steel of a statistically outstanding defence but their strength in depth, most notably in the forward areas, is deserving of the manager’s observation that this is the best-equipped squad he has managed.
It is hard to imagine a forward of Javier Hernandez’s match-winning calibre starting fewer than his six league matches this season at any other club in Europe. And that includes Barcelona.
One of Sir Alex’s greatest skills is his squad management over the course of a 38-match campaign. He is the king of the rotators, adapting his team for each opponent and occasion.
This ‘horses for courses’ policy has been a regular feature of United’s league triumphs from the mid-noughties onwards but it has been even more marked this season.
Only six members of the squad have started more than 20 of United’s 31 league fixtures - Robin van Persie (26), Michael Carrick (26), Patrice Evra (28), David de Gea (21), Rafael (23) and Rio Ferdinand (22).
By comparison, nine Chelsea (Gary Cahill, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Eden Hazard, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz, Juan Mata, Ramires and Fernando Torres) and seven City players (Gareth Barry, Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta) have started 20-plus top-tier fixtures.
By this yardstick, Liverpool (nine), Tottenham (eight) and Everton (eight) have all been more consistent in team selection. Only Arsenal match United’s total of six regulars, although the Gunners have five other players who have started 18 or 19 league games, a statistic United do not come close to.
Perhaps United’s greatest strength is their all-round fortitude. They are not overly burdened by an injury, or loss of form, to a single player.
Nemanja Vidic remains the club captain but he has started less than half of the league matches and will be far down the list in most observers’ assessments of the key components of the impending title triumph.
Robin van Persie was sensational before Christmas but he has flickered only intermittently since and his impact over the course of the season does not match, say, Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007-08.
Furthermore, Wayne Rooney’s latest mediocre display in a marquee match demonstrates that individual brilliance has been a secondary factor in assembling what is surely an impenetrable lead.
This season’s goals record is not too shabby. A Premier League-record haul of 96 or above remains within reach.
Yet it is unlikely that history will judge United’s 2012-13 team as favourably as the Ronaldo-inspired 2007-09 teams, the treble winners of 1999 and their immediate successors, or the early Sir Alex collectives which can still make the Govan godfather go all misty-eyed.
The 13th of his title winners remain on course to overhaul the 90-point finish of Arsenal’s 2003-04 ‘Invincibles’ but they do not possess the artistry of the high water-mark of the Arsene Wenger era.
Most United followers fondly recall the main personnel in of each of the title-winning seasons. The best XI almost always picked itself. The back five was usually rooted in cement. Edwin van der Sar behind Gary Neville, Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. Or, Peter Schmeichel barking out orders to Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin.
Not this season. David De Gea featured in his34th match of the season against City. He has played behind 22 different back-four combinations. That is a revealing statistic.
It is difficult to argue that this is a great United team, especially after twin failures in the latter stages of the Champions League and FA Cup.
But this is a cutting-edge squad perfectly equipped for 21st century version of a league campaign. That is where their greatness lies.
All that’s left to nail down the legacy is to hoover up a league title.