For the majority of its existence, the Premier League title race has followed in the principles of the Thunderdome of Mad Max fame: “two clubs enter; one team leaves… victorious.”
Genuine three-way title fights appear to have become extinct in the Premier League era (hence our focus), with each season framed around a duopoly of contenders. Of all the gladiators who have entered the league’s gruelling grand arena – Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City – it is Manchester United who have remained the most persistent and dominant force throughout the past 11 years.
Riding high and heading into March 12 points clear, United are in excellent shape to go on and clinch a 13th Premiership title. However, the club’s detractors have denounced their position as false, claiming that the current United team and the league itself is bereft of quality. This season is said to be a low-point in the domestic game that flatters a side lacking in skill and substance – a drought lacking in good players, teams or contests.
In truth something has been lacking in English football’s top-flight over the past five years: a full-blooded, competitive rivalry. While many great teams have come through, won and lost throughout the Premier League years, the division’s best showdowns have featured something else – another ingredient beyond the league table – to set them apart from the rest.
Roberto Mancini and Manchester City are yet to provide the sort of opposition required to make the grade. Last season’s title win wasn’t enough. Regardless of the pain inflicted, and the bitter, long-standing animosity between the two clubs, United remain as the establishment. City’s challenge must be deeper and more prolonged to qualify. English football is demanding a new cold war between two opposing ideologies whose very existence seems to threaten the survival of the other.
In the heady days of Arsene Wenger’s peak, Arsenal versus Manchester United felt more like a clash of dynasties fighting over the rights to history than two clubs sparring for a championship. With his revolutionary methods, Wenger’s new-look Arsenal reeked of progress and sophistication – a challenge that seemed to offend United’s historical sense of glamour into rabid action. Add in Keane, Viera, along with a scattering of iconic, high-stakes games, and United’s modern-day rivalry with Arsenal became loaded with the potency required for greatness.
Competition creates a different kind of rivalry, coming as it does from an animalistic sense of nervous self-preservation and fearful, pre-emptive aggression against a threat to your identity, confidence and ambition.
For many, Liverpool will always be United’s greatest adversaries – a conflict first created through contest and later super-charged by it in the 2008-09 season. Not only were Liverpool attempting to block a hat trick of league titles for United, but suddenly the club whom Sir Alex Ferguson had vowed to knock from their perch had turned up to reinforce their record directly. It is competition not history that continues to encourage revisionist rants about that season across a number of Liverpool fan forums.
Chelsea, the other most recent arrival on the title chase scene, are partly to blame for the slightly deflated nature of Manchester City’s bid for domestic domination. There’s a sense that we’ve seen it all before, and having witnessed the supposedly insurmountable empire of oil riches built by Roman Abramovich fall in its attempts at total supremacy, perhaps there’s a certain complacency and lack of respect for what City have offered so far. Rather than replacing Manchester United as the club to beat year-in year-out, Chelsea have become the largest fish in the pool of potential contenders – an under-realm Sheikh Mansour’s pet project may be destined for judging by their second season hiccups.
There is potential over at the Etihad however, with money being poured into a state-of-the-art campus designed to compete with the best youth academies in the world. Self-sufficiency and standard-raising, as displayed by Arsenal’s glory days, are the key elements of a real, substantial competitive rivalry – the sort of war where triumph offers the winner far more than the annual spoils and awards. Money alone feels oddly transient, as if the assets and success it buys are slightly superficial and cosmetic. Even with its historical context and geography, United-City will remain lukewarm compared to previous challenges until the prospect of a fully-fledged usurpation is a likely possibility.
“You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the fucking difference between winning and losing!” Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.
This video was created by @AntonAlfy and can be found on his YouTube page.
This year’s title race has proven to be one for the ages. With United and City trading blows like two heavyweight boxers, fans have a mouthwatering two months left of the season to look forward to.
With five games left before the two juggernauts of English football face off at the Etihad Stadium, United will have to be ruthless, relentless and merciless if they want to win yet another Barclays Premier League title. “Squeaky bum time,” it most certainly is!
Much has been made out of United’s final eight games. Strangely, an away trip to Ewood Park has recently become a “definite three points” in the minds of many even though Blackburn won the game at Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve, to add to the fact that United have not won at Ewood Park since 2008.
This complacency is what many believe cost United a spot amongst Europe’s elite in the knockout stages of the Champions League and judging by the way some people perceive the remaining fixtures, it seems that for some United fans may have failed to learn their lesson.
It has to be emphasized that there are no easy games during the run-in, something United nearly realised all the quickly after having to battle hard to gain all three points against Fulham. As the season draws to a close, almost every team improves in some way, due to their increased work rate and determination, driven by their increased realization of impending gloom or doom and, regardless of which end of the spectrum they are at, every team wants to end on a high note.
Some may say Manchester City have a tough schedule from now on, seeing as they have to go the Emirates and get something against Arsenal but I would also say that United have a tough schedule too, playing against teams who are fighting for survival.
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To add to that, it’s never easy being the favorites, even though we are obviously accustomed to it, because when the underdog puts hid back against the wall, he can surprise you and come out swinging; fighting and battling for every bit of possession, every ball and every blade of grass.
Personally, I still have nightmares about Antonio Valencia missing ‘that’ one-on-one with Paul Robinson at Ewood Park in 2010. That game ended in a goalless draw and was the reason why Chelsea climbed past us in the title race and were eventually crowned champions.
Those are the types of moments that we need to be wary of. Manchester United have always carried the moniker of being a club who are relentless in their quest for success and that needs to be maintained, especially at places such as Ewood Park and the DW Stadium.
To paraphrase Al Pacino’s infamous motivational speech in the movie, Any Given Sunday;
“in any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s going to win”.
At this time of the season, it’s time to stop talking about next year, last year, injuries, bad refs and all the other excuses. It’s about going out, and getting the job done and if there’s one team in the world who knows how to do just that, it’s Manchester United.
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Written by Jonas, who also appears on our weekly Man United Podcast regularly.
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