Sports

Soccer Focus: Round the
Bend

Chelsea is in disarray. Arsenal is struggling. Liverpool is a work in progress. Tottenham Hotspur lacks that killer instinct. Everton doesn’t have sufficient strength in depth. West Brom is West Brom.

These are not my opinions, necessarily, but the general consensus in the world of soccer punditry relating to genuine title prospects for the Barclays Premier League this season.

With just over a third of the current season gone, everyone’s already starting to talk about a two horse race for the Premier League crown, involving, not surprisingly, Manchesters United and City.

How enterprising then of the BPL fixtures computer to have thrown up the first clash between the two this weekend, heading into a crucial period with matches coming thicker and faster than the snow currently falling in parts of England.

Manchester United leads the standings after their thrilling 4-3 win at Reading last weekend.

Not content with coughing up the first goal, as has been its wont this season, United even let its opponents take the lead again, before reverting to type, and picking up the points.

The three conceded at the Madejski brought the total for BPL “goals against” to 21 — that’s the same number as Norwich (12th) and Newcastle (14th) and three more than Sunderland, one place and one point off the relegation zone.

It’s an extraordinary statistic, and it’s something that Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted to being concerned about.

“It’s a worry,” he conceded (excuse the pun) after the Reading game, before continuing, “If we perform like that on Sunday then God knows what’s going to happen to us.”

The good news for United is that despite having a defense as porous as limestone in nearly every game played, the squad has been conspicuously effective at the other end of the field.

With 37 goals scored (nine more than any other BPL team) and with Wayne Rooney back on song, and Robin van Persie having already reached double figures for the season, clearly they do not have too many problems in that department.

The question is, how much longer will SAF be able to get away with giving away goals, and dealing with the pressure it brings?

We may find out on Sunday as his men make the short trip across town to face City, where they lost 1-0 last season — the game in April that more or less decided the outcome of that particular title race. A draw back in April would have been enough to see United claim the crown — a thought that may have been in Sir Alex’s mind when he sent his team out on that fateful night at the Etihad.

In the current situation, a draw this weekend would be a decent result for United, with three of the remaining four games in December to be played at Old Trafford. It would seem to present an excellent opportunity for United to consolidate their position at the top of the table heading into the new year.

But, and it’s a big but, they’re going to have to keep at bay a City side that’s just beginning to show signs of last season’s ruthlessness and who, many are suggesting, still have a lot more to offer.

While many expected City to hit the ground running in August, it’s clear that is has yet to hit the imperious heights of the last campaign, running roughshod over many teams — including Manchester United back in October 2011.

I was at Old Trafford on the day when City beat United 6-1, and the mood among the United faithful was not one of anger, or disappointment, but of utter disbelief. No one could remember anything quite like it, and it’s a match that Ferguson admits he will never forget (and probably still has nightmares about).

Manchester City showed what it was capable of that day, and the worrying aspect for all the other teams in the BPL is that we haven’t seen anything like it this season. Yet.

With elimination from European competition confirmed this week, City will be able to focus its considerable resources on retaining the Premier League title, and that will be a concern for those around them. After last season’s Champions League disappointment, this latest campaign has been even worse, and City’s owners are unlikely to countenance a lack of any meaningful silverware when the curtain comes down on the current edition of the BPL next May.

There has always been plenty at stake when the two Manchester clubs meet, but with City’s new wealth and the success it has brought, the last few seasons have been about more than just local bragging rights.

With several horses in the race for the title lacking the requisite pace or falling lame at this stage of the season, it could well turn into a head to head between United and City as the campaign progresses. The question is, will City put on a burst of speed and pull level this weekend, or will United open up a bigger lead and gallop into the new year? We’ll find out on Sunday.

Catch Andrew Leci on The Verdict at 7 p.m. on ESPN, and during the live match presentation of the Barclays Premier League

Paper Edition | Page: 18

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.

From Our Networks