Ferguson has preached since the concession of the title to neighbours Manchester City last May that he would not allow his side to lose a league title in the same circumstances again. It’s easy to belittle them as just words, but there seems a steely determination permeating through this season’s squad that they simply will not allow the same thing to happen again this year. Yes, we’ve endured the first half of the season where we continually conceded the first goal and appeared porous at the back, but the way we recovered every single time that happened to rescue points, often three, went beyond the usual air of unstinting Manchester United refusal to lose. As fans we’ve become accustomed over the years to snatching late wins at the death of games but with the countless times we’ve rescued points from losing positions this season, to United fans it’s felt like something more than a rallying cavalry charge. It’s felt like all along, despite being in losing positions that we’ve been in control. Every game, analysts became more amazed that we’d gone behind first yet again, but while the theories and criticism gathered pace, so too did the belief among fans and seemingly the team that the points were never really in doubt. I don’t think I’ve been calmer, as a United fan, facing a two goal deficit than the one we were staring at Villa Park in November. I know how strong the powers of recovery are woven into the fabric of this club but I loathe seeing my team in any sort of precarious situation, I don’t handle that well, until this season. I was, however, blasé about going behind that day. And whereas, before Christmas, with our defence leaky and defenders injured and unfit, we did scrape through some games, now, with Nemanja Vidic looking the closest he’s been to the Vidic of old in the last 18 months, and with the defence in general tightening up and being in a good run of form, the whole team seems driven, intent, almost certain of regaining our title.
2. Rafael established at right back
I read a piece on the weekend, although I cannot for the life of me now find it, about Graeme Souness claiming he would start Phil Jones at right back at the Bernabeu on Wednesday ahead of Rafael da Silva. He still has his doubters despite the fact he’s improved incredibly over the past 12 months and has been one of our players of the season. He rightly claimed the man of the match award against Everton and while there were several eye-catching performances from the men in red, I thought he was particularly superb. The lasting memory I think most reds will have of Rafael in his time at Old Trafford is his petulant sending off against Bayern Munich that ultimately cost us a place in the Champions League semi-finals in 2010. But, as I said, he’s made a remarkable improvement in the last year and has now fully assumed the role of right back as his and his alone. At times in the early part of last season, his inability to concentrate on the defensive part of his game and his tendency to rush into tackles a bit too full-blooded gave me cause for concern about whether he had a future at Old Trafford. Sir Alex clearly recognised this too and swapped the right back duties between Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. What a difference a year makes though. Gary Neville’s boots are hard ones to fill but he’s really come into his own, especially this season. He’s still learning the defensive side of things but he’s been much more controlled, clever and calm when he’s got his back to goal. In that sense he still has a lot to learn to compare himself to Neville. On the other side of his game, however, he’s a massive threat going forward. He typifies the modern day full back, whose jobs are not solely accomplished when the ball’s been cleared. He’s pacey, has loads of stamina, is tenacious and, unlike his predecessor, he’s got a pretty keen eye for goal. As an aside, his pass for Robin van Persie’s goal on Sunday was unbelievable. It was so good it could have come from Wayne Rooney. In another article I read prior to the Everton game, the young Brazilian was quoted as saying he doesn’t need a rest, he wants to play all the time, and that’s music to this supporter’s ears.
3. Defence is coming good at exactly the right time
Rafael improving, Nemanja Vidic beginning to look like the warrior of old and another clean sheet. It’s no surprise that many are talking of the title already being over. Of course, United fans know better than to count our chickens after the heartache of last year, but after looking so uncharacteristically leaky and dishevelled before Christmas, our excellent form since the turn of the year has been helped largely by a return to normality for the back four. It’s helped that we’ve had a full strength defence to choose from once again, something that’s been a rare luxury for much of the last two years, and I’m delighted that us tightening up at the back has coincided with the return from injury and, more importantly, return to form of the talismanic Serbian. I feared that he may never get back to his best, especially after his set-back at the start of the season, and of course it’s still early days but honestly, with a fit and in-form Vidic, coupled with the prolific goalscoring form of van Persie, we’re in a much better position than we were last season. We had neither Vidic (for the most part) or RVP last year and we only lost the title to City on goal difference.
4. Fergie proves the league comes first
On the eve of the biggest European game since the 2011 final against Barcelona, Fergie had hinted that the teams that took on Everton on Sunday and the one that faces Real Madrid on Wednesday would be two very different line-ups. Fergie, however, admitted after Sunday’s win that it was too good a chance to turn down not to play a full strength side against Everton after seeing the City result at Southampton the day before. That kind of move proves that no matter how much he yearns for the holy grail of one more Champions League title before he leaves Old Trafford, Sir Alex holds the league title in the highest esteem of all. To be honest, we won relatively comfortably against the Toffees so there was not too much strain put on the side ahead of the first leg against Real, apart from slight injury worries to Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. Yet another masterstroke from the Scotsman pays off and now we can look forward to meeting Ronaldo and co with a nice cushion in the league and, at least on paper, a kind schedule against teams in the lower half of the league in our next five fixtures.
5. Ryan Giggs = living legend
It’s always nice when you can end on a sentimental note. I’ve been praying and hoping that I’d get to see Ryan Giggs score for the 21st Premier League season in succession and his 23rd in total, so Sunday was a joyous occasion. The superlatives used to describe the most decorated player in English football have been exhausted and are now a little clichéd. You can’t say anything about him that hasn’t been said already. So many of his records will probably never be beaten. Individual English league titles, United appearances and the hugely impressive record of scoring in every league season for well over two decades. To put that in context, even Frank Lampard and Gareth Bale have not scored in every league season they’ve appeared in. Lampard’s first two seasons at West Ham did not yield a goal, while Giggs’ fellow Welshman Bale also did not score in his first season with Southampton and then his first with Spurs. Robin van Persie has scored in every Premier League season he’s been a part of, nine. To emulate Giggs he’d have to play until he’s 44! Unlike Paul Scholes, who has been largely, hugely impressive since reversing his decision to retire, but has started to look every bit his 38 years at times this season, Giggs doesn’t look at all like he’s struggling. He’s becoming more of a feature in the United team over the last three or four months and his experience, along with Vidic’s return and van Persie’s goals, will be key in regaining the title. Despite recently turning 39, Giggs looks likely to sign another year-long contract extension which will see him play past his 40th birthday and personally I think the only milestone left that he needs to break is passing the 1,000 appearances mark for United. I’d love to see him achieve that.
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