1. Defence back on top
After a decidedly shaky start to the season in which we shipped plenty of goals and had to come back from numerous losing positions to snatch draws and wins, United’s defence looks back to its imperious best once again. With a fit and healthy corps of centre backs, the Reds have got back to basics and while we’d always scored plenty of goals in those leaky first few months to paper over our defensive cracks, the bedrock of our success since the turn of the year has once again been our defending. Rio has been a rock all season while Vidic, Smalling, Evans and Jones have all contributed having had injury-affected seasons. The superb return to fitness and form of the Serbian in particular will have given United fans confidence. Rising English stars Smalling and Jones look to have promising careers ahead of them at Old Trafford while Evans has been one of our best players this season. At the moment it doesn’t seem to matter who Sir Alex Ferguson plays, even Alexander Büttner, who looked impressive yesterday, our back four is looking mean and keen to take us to title number 20.
2. Battling display
After last season’s Stadium of Light experience, I was really keen for the Reds to maul the Black Cats. Alas, it was not to be and I’ll just as easily take a scrappy and determined 1-0 win based on graft and good defence. I sense there could well be a few more of them to come perhaps. As Fergie’s famous quote around this time of the season goes, it’s ‘squeaky bum time’ now and, despite the fact we have such a dominating lead over City with just eight games to go, United fans will not feel comfortable until the mathematics say that we cannot be caught. We have after all got big games against City and Chelsea at home and a trip to the Emirates to come, while away days at Upton Park and the Britannia Stadium will be tricky. A 1-0 win can often be misleading, as can big winning margins. We weren’t really in any danger of losing yesterday. Sunderland had one shot on target and we defended stoutly. If there are a few more 1-0 wins to grind out, we look in the mood to do that.
3. ‘Our worst squad in years’
I’ve heard this little beauty mentioned countless times this season and over the last few years in general. People say this current squad of Fergie’s is one of worst United squads in years. What a load of nonsense. I don’t think this could be further from the truth. I often think that line is just spouted off by neutrals and frustrated anti-United fans. Ahead of this weekend’s double header against Sunderland and Chelsea in two days, there were lots of articles written in the press about Fergie using two completely different teams for the two games. While I don’t think that’s entirely true (I think Rafael, De Gea and Carrick at least should start against Chelsea), I actually think this is one of the best squads we’ve ever had under the Scotsman. I’ve already touched on central defence where we’re blessed with five quality centre backs, while Evra has returned to something approaching his best form this season and Rafael has really emerged as a star this season and, bar Pablo Zabaleta, has been the best right back in the league this season. It’s obvious the riches we have in attack are an embarrassment. While Van Persie has trailed off of late, Rooney and Hernandez and other areas of the field have picked up the slack, but the Dutchman’s 23 league goals already this season have gone some way to giving us the 15 point gap we enjoy at the top. Midfield, the main area for criticism in recent years, is also an area that many other teams will be envious of. Michael Carrick has been undoubtedly our best player of the season and whoever has come in alongside him has done the job. Tom Cleverley is progressing nicely while Anderson shows glimpses that he can still have a career at Old Trafford, when he’s fit, while Ryan Giggs’ transformation from flying winger to midfield general has been one of the biggest achievements of his career. So, one of the worst United squads in years? Give me some of what you’ve been smoking.
4. Performance of champions elect?
As I’ve already mentioned, a tense 1-0 win over a relegation threatened side may attract criticism from the media and anti-United fans, but I think it speaks volumes about our charge towards title number 20. Despite the margin of victory, there seemed to be a calmness to our performance yesterday. Of course, to throw the title away now would be a disaster of epic proportions, far worse than last season, and you really can’t see us caving again, but with a lot of big and/or tricky games left to go, Fergie will no doubt be pressing home to his players the need to remain focused and that there could be a few more results like yesterday’s needed in the home straight.
5. Martin O’Neill sacking
In the hours after the win in the north east, we learnt of Martin O’Neill’s sacking. Apart from the fact that it’s ridiculous to sack a manager when your team is deep in relegation trouble and there are only eight games to go, I wonder where it’s all gone wrong for the Northern Irishman, who was once touted as a possible replacement for Sir Alex. Still a possible future United boss? Probably not but I like O’Neill and I wouldn’t completely and utterly rule him out. The glamour names of Guardiola and Mourinho are popular with the media men but, for me, when the time does actually come to replace the great man, I hope the new manager will be a more traditional, home grown name. O’Neill’s tenures at Aston Villa and Sunderland haven’t exactly helped his chances of one day taking over in the Old Trafford hot seat, while at 61, you often don’t realise that he’s not exactly at the beginning of his managerial career. He’s only 10 years Ferguson’s junior. So while I’m not exactly calling for O’Neill to be in the running to be the next United boss, I wouldn’t completely rule him out.
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