United were 15 points clear of title rivals Chelsea at the end of February but the Blues will go top if they win at Old Trafford after a string of setbacks for Ferguson's men
By Wayne Veysey at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal's victory over Manchester United has not only thrown open the title race but ignited a whole new debate.
Will United be written off as bottlers like their rivals would have been should they fail to wrap up the title that has been within their grasp for weeks?
It may seem a ludicrous suggestion for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team of serial winners, who are a 90-minute Old Trafford stroll away from a third Champions League final in four years, but there is a modicum of validity to the claim.
Consider the Premier League table on February 26. United stood top on 60 points, four ahead of second-placed Arsenal. Down in fifth place, with a game in hand on the top two, were Chelsea on 45 points and yet to emerge from a winter hibernation that had nearly ruined their season.
Since then, Chelsea have swatted away Premier League opposition, accumulating 25 points out of a possible 27 to give themselves an unlikely sniff of the title.
Among their scalps at Stamford Bridge in that period are the two Manchester clubs, United and City, and Tottenham. In this two-month spell, only Stoke City have prevented Chelsea’s players claiming their win bonus.
By contrast, United have spluttered against their major rivals. They began March with consecutive away defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool, and have now come unstuck against Arsenal, too.
Of the last 24 points available to them, they have claimed 13, which is far from championship-winning form.
Ferguson’s team drew 0-0 at Newcastle United, scraped last-gasp home wins against Bolton Wanderers (Dimitar Berbatov scored the winner in the 87th minute) and Everton (Javier Hernandez in the 84th minute) and were 2-0 down at half-time at West Ham before a Wayne Rooney-led rally resulted in a 4-2 win. Only when defeating Fulham 2-0 at home have United won with plenty still in the locker over the last two months.
Ferguson could reasonably point to the match officials contributing to the Chelsea defeat (David Luiz should have been sent off and the decisive late penalty was on the soft side) but his side were beaten comprehensively at Anfield and it was a similar tale at the Emirates Stadium.
Without the pressure of staying in the title hunt, Arsenal were dominant and good value for their victory, courtesy of a fluent move clinically finished by Aaron Ramsey. By contrast, their opponents were lacklustre. Inevitably, United rallied in the last 20 minutes but Arsene Wenger’s team displayed the resilience that has been so lacking over a disastrous spring and held off with few scares.“Without the pressure of staying in the title hunt, Arsenal were dominant and good value for their victory”
Wojciech Szczesny, save for some kicking that sent Pat Rice apoplectic, was notably outstanding in goal and Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou no less commanding in front of him.
United could have had a penalty when Gael Clichy manhandled Michael Owen in the area but Arsenal had been denied a far more blatant spot-kick in the first half when Nemanja Vidic had one of his skittish moments, waving his arm at a Theo Walcott cross that was about to land on Robin van Persie’s head. The Serbian was fortunate to stay on the pitch.
Sadly for Arsenal fans it will all be too little too late. Had they managed to take care of Bolton, Sunderland, Blackburn and West Brom in the same manner in recent weeks then a six-year trophy drought would be coming to an end - instead, they crumbled when the pressure was on, and played with their customary verve when it was off again.
United’s outstanding midweek display away to Schalke and their well-merited Champions League quarter-final win over Chelsea have glossed over their generally indifferent domestic performances this season.
In many ways, they have been the best of a mediocre bunch in what has been a topsy-turvy, but far from vintage Premier League campaign.
It is to United’s credit that they have found ways of eking out victories in the gritty, never-say-die manner that is their hallmark. Even Ferguson has admitted that the current team lacks the fantasy of its predecessors but few would question their mental strength or desire when they cross the white line.
Yet, with three matches of the domestic season to play, United find themselves in the unwelcome position of being in danger of throwing away title No. 12 of the Premier League era, and a record No.19 in total.
Staying power has rarely been an issue over the last two decades but suddenly United cannot wait for the finishing line to hover into view. It is Chelsea, despite the problems of integrating Fernando Torres into their line-up, who are ending the league season more powerfully.
It should not be ignored that United had travelled to Germany in midweek, and that Arsenal had the luxury of a full week’s preparation. All four of the Champions League semi-finalists failed to win at the weekend.
However, the fixture list had provided a five-day break between the two competitions for Britain’s biggest club and Ferguson has few injuries to contend with, just the mystery of Darren Fletcher’s virus.
Perhaps United have simply found their level. They may well become a dominant force in English football again but they are not at the moment. There have been too many hiccups, too much mediocrity this season for that.
Should Chelsea win at Old Trafford next Sunday, the Premier League champions will end the season with less than 80 points for the first time since United’s 98-99 treble winners. History remembers the team of Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel et al as a great one but it is unlikely that the current vintage will be seen in the same light if they do not stand atop the Premier League podium in mid-May.
It is too early to apply the ‘chokers’ tag to United. If anything, they have exceeded the sum of their parts this season. But should Chelsea overtake them over the coming weeks, the critiques will be scathing.