Christmas. The season of goodwill to all men, of the virtues of giving and extending the hand of charity. Whatever. You try telling that to Sir Alex Ferguson when the chance of extending an already bountiful lead at the top of Premier League is all too tempting. After last weekend’s last-gasp victory over Manchester City opened up a six-point gap. the glut of fixtures over the festive season could prove crucial come what May.
In the cut throat environment of the Premier League a few decisions can make a hell of a difference. A linesman’s call to put his flag up and deny a legitimate goal. A referee’s opinion on what constitutes a foul and a subsequent penalty kick. Thankfully, lynching of match officials has been largely overlooked in the aftermath of this crucial clash as other incidents have taken centre stage.
Coverage has instead focused on the bloody image of Rio Ferdinand felled by a coin and the cherubic face of a hooligan being thrown off the pitch by Joe Hart. Back on the pitch, Samir Nasri’s somewhat loose interpretation of how to form part of a defensive wall could mean the difference between glory and despair when prizes are handed out.
Though one wonders what damage could have been done had Ashley Young‘s tap-in been rightly granted. As last season proved when Manchester City went on the rampage in the ‘Game That Shall Not Be Mentioned’ and goal difference was the deciding factor, one performance can be crucial. As it stands, most would settle simply for the manner of last Sunday’s winner, both in its timing and its potential psychological impact. What matters in the next few weeks is the twisting of the knife.
In a gut-wrenching finale akin to Manchester United’s final day last season, it is whether City can pick themselves up that will prove telling. They say that reaching the summit is the easy part, it is remaining there that is difficult. Now they are champions they are there to be shot down in a hitherto unfamiliar position.
City’s hold on their title is already wobbly and keeping the gap to six then decreasing it will be of chief concern going into the new year. Their confident swagger has eluded them for the most part this season and to prevent it becoming a stumble they need to start picking up wins. A bounce back victory against Newcastle on the weekend was scant reward when United widened the gap back to six points with victory over Sunderland. Their fixture calendar has set up a few tricky encounters with Reading (h), Sunderland (a), Norwich (a) and Stoke City (h). With their talismanic captain Vincent Kompany out with a groin injury, his absence could also bear an impact.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Manchester things are looking a little rosier. When a three-point gap becomes six with the potent swing of Robin van Persie’s left foot in injury time spirits should be high. A significant psychological blow has been dealt but now is not the time to rest on any laurels. Christmas is no occasion for charity on a football pitch and the fixture list looks a little less daunting; Swansea (a), Newcastle (h), West Brom (h) and Wigan (a). Also, any concerns over a defensive crisis will be partly relieved with the news of Nemanja Vidic’s return at the weekend.
Though Anderson’s hamstring injury is poor timing (especially with Roses tins and Christmas dinner around) the partnership of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley seems to provide the right balance of dynamics and discipline that has eluded Manchester United’s midfield. Though the full squad will come into play and different combinations will be tried this spell could see our first-choice eleven finally take shape. Only mere tinkering is needed as momentum and wins may see United pull clear and keep twisting that knife.