By Thomas Doyle
1. Nemanja Vidic has been missed
Despite the form and fitness of Rio Ferdinand, and the massive improvement in Jonny Evans’ performances, Manchester United’s last two league matches have proved what an important loss captain Nemanja Vidic has been to the side. It is highly doubtful that the Serbian would have allowed Everton to claw their way back into the game from 4-2 down in the last 10 minutes, and would surely have not been bullied as the aforementioned pair were by Marouane Fellaini. Vincent Kompany played like a man possessed in Monday’s derby, and his goal was a just reward for his performance, but Chris Smalling was badly at fault for allowing him the time and space to power a header past David de Gea.
It’s easy to use excuses, and City have missed key players such as Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero (not to mention Carlos Tevez), yet one can only help but feel that with Vidic in the side, United could well have cruised to the title by now. Shock results such as the Everton game, and the home defeat to Blackburn, have proved that while United have a host of promising centre-back options, but none have the cast-iron mentality of the Serbian yet. Vidic has made excellent progress and is currently training in the gym to strengthen muscles around his damaged knee, and hopes to be in training with the rest of the team by pre-season. His return cannot come soon enough for Sir Alex Ferguson.
2. Out of the freezer, into the inferno
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Park ji-Sung were handed starts in the most important clash of the season, and none distinguished themselves well. Park was off the pace and poor in control in the centre, Jones looked hurried and harried, and Smalling ultimately cost United the points with poor marking. However, it would be unfair to lay the blame squarely at their feet, for none of the players have played regularly of late. While he is usually fantastic in high-pressure games, it is simply unfair to expect Park to perform to the top level against a world-class midfield when he has only played 17 league minutes since February 5th. Similarly, Jones and Smalling – heralded as a future United and England centre-back pairing at the start of the season – have lost their respective places to Rafael and Evans through form and fitness issues. This was Smalling’s first start in 10, and although Evans’ injury forced Ferguson’s hand, but it is nigh-on impossible for young players to simply stroll into such a game and dominate it after little time on the pitch. It was less a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, but more of removing them from cold storage and flinging them into a blue inferno.
3. Not with a bang, but a whimper
There was always a chance that City would defeat United at the Etihad, but the manner of the defeat will gall most United fans. For the first time in three years, United didn’t manage a single shot on target, which flies in the face of Ferguson’s statement of attacking intent beforehand. The omission of Rafael at right-back was understandable given the Brazilian’s haphazard showing against Everton a week before, but in dropping both him and Antonio Valencia, Ferguson withdrew United’s most potent partnership of late. With Nani and Patrice Evra struggling on the left side, there was no wide threat to speak of; coupled with a midfield of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Park, Ferguson in essence reduced United’s midfield to an impotent version of City’s. The plan was to stifle their rivals, and introduce attacking subs as the game wore on, but Valencia was only given 15 minutes, Young less so, while Hernandez and Berbatov were left on the bench. Danny Welbeck and Valencia have been United’s form players of late, but both were on the bench to start with. Most fans would accept a defeat if the game was lost after exhausting all possibilities, but with Joe Hart untroubled, Ferguson betrayed his attacking instincts. It is safe to say that Ferguson and his staff got the big calls wrong on Monday, and that will haunt him if City clinch the title.
4. Newcastle can decide the title
While City can win the title with two strong victories against Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers, stranger things have happened in Premier League history. Papiss Cisse scored two sublime goals in a thrilling away win for Newcastle at Chelsea on Wednesday evening, and the defence held firm to deny John Terry and the rest with impressive blocks. While the Roberto Di Matteo’s side don’t have the strength of City, Ferguson will be hoping that Alan Pardew’s men can fight City all the way on Sunday afternoon. Newcastle have taken four points off of United this season, and while they are still hunting a Champions League place, they remain a huge threats to Mancini’s ambitions. The Sports Direct Arena @ St James’ Park is probably the last place that City would want to go to, and United fans will be watching that clash through the fingertips. All I can say is – good luck Papiss & co!
5. Can United catch City’s goal haul?
It may seem like clutching at straws, but it would be interesting if United were to unleash some of their frustrations on Swansea City and manage to hit seven or eight to set up a race to the title on the final day. Swansea caused United problems at Liberty Stadium in a narrow 1-0 defeat to the Red Devils back in November, yet the Swans shipped four at home to already-relegated Wolves last week, and with Premier League safety secured, there is the possibility that they may not be at the races. With one eye on recruitment for the summer, Brendan Rodgers and his side may feel the wrath of United on Sunday afternoon. With Welbeck unavailable could it perhaps be time for Dimitar Berbatov to leave United with another quintet of goals as a leaving present?