With a heavy Christmas schedule on the horizon for all Premier League teams although it’s nowhere near ‘squeaky bum’ time, the next week or so could well decide the title race.
Although titles aren’t, at least historically, decided in December, with four games in nine days, there’s no denying that it’s a crucial part of the season which could potentially see United obtain a commanding lead.
Sir Alex Ferguson has set his team a target of being top by the end of the Christmas fixtures on January 4th.
Sir Alex stated: “My aim is to try and be top by January 4.
“By that time, the top of the league will have taken shape.
“Maybe, because of the weather, it is difficult to think everyone will have four games. But if we do, and we are top, we will have done well.”
With home games against Sunderland and Stoke and away fixtures to WBA and Birmingham, all United’s festive matches fall under the ‘tricky’ category but there’s no reason why we can’t win all of them.
While a trip to St. Andrews has draw written all over it for practically any club, except Chelsea who lost of course, if United were to take ten points from a possible 12 then it would still be a good return and could well see United stay on top of the EPL.
There’s no doubt though if United are to enjoy a productive New Year, then some of the fringe members of the squad are going to have to prove their worth and this is where United could hold an advantage over their rivals.
The United squad is one of the strongest in the league, with each position having at least two internationals vying for it. Take the strikers for example, with Rooney, Berbatov, Chicharito, the recently returned Michael Owen not to mention Kiko Macheda all available for selection.
Having five strikers is no use to anyone if they’re not of a high standard but all of United’s front men could arguably walk into nearly any Premier League side. Only Macheda who’s still a long way from the finished article and Owen who’s fitness still remains doubtful have question marks over whether they could start for the Reds.
The midfield is one area many United fans were hoping Sir Alex would strengthen in the Summer, with Rafael Van Der Vaart and Mesut Ozil being mentioned so much by many Reds, I actually thought we’d signed them both at one point.
While I still have my worries as to whether the current central midfield has enough truly world class players in it to take on the likes of Barcelona, there’s still enough quality to overcome most teams. Fletcher, Carrick and Anderson are on their day, capable of dominating any game. There’s also Ryan Giggs who can be deployed in a more central area if needs be. With Park, who’s available for the Sunderland game before he departs for the Aldi cup, Nani, Obertan and Bebe not to mention Giggs, then there’s enough players to cover the wide positions certainly against the likes of WBA and Stoke.
Another concern surrounding United’s starting XI is in the central defensive positions, mainly the absence of either Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic. While Chris Smalling has exceeded many expectations, Jonny Evans has had something of a torrid time of late and can no longer be trusted on current form. Admittedly the best way to help the youngster get over it may be to throw him back in the mix- but he’s looked so out of sorts lately I’d actually prefer to see either Smalling or Brown replace Rio or Vidic if one of them is rested.
United look much frailer at the back when Ferdinand isn’t there, I’d even go as far as saying he’s more important to the defence than Vidic- although only just. Despite Vidic wearing the captain’s armband, Rio is the true organiser at the back and he does a job that’s second to none in marshalling his defensive troops.
As for the full back positions, well with Evra the Da Silva twins, not to mention Brown and O’Shea, there’s enough there to cope with the fixture congestion- who knows Fergie may even give Gary Neville his 500th League game, although I’m not to sure now is the time for nostalgic generosity.
Things aren’t looking quite as rosy at United’s rivals; Chelsea skipper- the lovable -John Terry recently questioned whether his side have the strength in depth to cope with the busy Christmas period.
Terry said: “In the past we had a big squad and could rotate and put other players in, we don’t have that now, we have quite a young squad and it’s time for everyone to stay together like we always will.”
Carlo Ancelotti has been quick to play down Terry’s statement- shades of Capello in South Africa- claiming the Chelsea squad is in fine shape. The results speak for themselves and no wins in the last five games, gives credence to Terry’s observations.
Arsenal- Chelsea’s opponents on Monday- have their own problems to contend with- none of which have been helped by the more vociferous among United ranks. Arsene Wenger was quick to rubbish Nani’s recent claim that it was only Chelsea and United involved in the title race. Only a week earlier it was Evra upsetting everyone at the Emirates by claiming Arsenal were a “training centre” with few title credentials. Wenger would do well to worry about the comments of his own players before worrying about those coming from Old Trafford.
Future Arsenal star Cesc Fabregas claimed his team were ‘scared’ following their recent defeat at Old Trafford and with Chelsea winning the last five contests against the Gunners, scared is the last thing Arsenal can afford to be.
The only other real title contenders are our friends from M11, who have tricky trips away to both St James’s Park and the Emirates over the next 11 days. City seem like a club in disarray despite being in third place. With the on/off Carlos Tevez saga, Balotelli doing his best to endear himself to everyone in world football and the recent home defeat against Everton, all is not well in the house that Sheikh Mansour’s money built.
The fact that Arsenal play both Chelsea and City means that at least one of them are guaranteed to drop points over Christmas and with a bit of luck it might even be all of them.
The notion that there are no easy games in the Premier League anymore may well be true, but there are ‘easier’ games and the four United have over Christmas would certainly fall into that category.
With the United squad in fairly decent shape- bar long-term victims Valencia, Hargreaves and a short-term problem to Paul Scholes, a set of winnable fixtures and good recent form, there’s every reason to hope this could be a very merry Christmas at Old Trafford.