Valencia. For the tight games ahead he is as important a player for United as Rooney.

As a City fan it’s extremely difficult to write this article but there comes a time when the head must be listened to over the heart. Though the blue half of Manchester have been sensational at times this season – breaking records along the way – and have led admirably from the front for the bulk of the campaign a number of factors point towards the title once again heading to Old Trafford on May 13th if not sooner.

The league table may still show a two-horse race and I will certainly remain vociferous and supportive to the very end but to dismiss the undeniable fact that United are now firm favourites borders on the delusional.

And as already alluded to, delusion is for my heart. This is from my head.

Before we begin, let’s discount a couple of aspects that won’t play a part in this title race.

Mind games – This whole concept is a fallacy of the media based entirely upon a singular meltdown from a man who famously wore his emotions on the outside. Yes Keegan once famously chewed rabidly on the bait dangled by Ferguson nearly twenty years ago but quite frankly the Newcastle boss was so frayed and pumped following a hard-fought away win at Leeds that night he would have chest-poked his own shadow.

Stepping down as England manager citing that he wasn’t up to the job is retrospective proof that Keegan was not a man who dealt well with pressure and the notion that a couple of Machievellian comments in a United press conference will unnerve Mancini and his men is nothing short of farcical.

This won’t stop the media from exaggerating and warping the importance of every sentence uttered from either camp in the weeks ahead but that is largely due to a desperate need for something – anything – to build headlines around.

United have the know-how – You would have thought, after United went top for the first time since October following their recent win over West Brom, that the 6-1 thumping dished out by their arch-rivals last Autumn was a tactical ploy to hold back and time their run-in to perfection. According to the Twitterati this was when United stretched their legs and romped for home, something they’d done previously time and again whilst City – being title-chasing dilettantes – would now duly ‘bottle’ it.

Not so. While there is obviously truth in United possessing seasoned nous of such intensive run-ins the idea that there is some sort of empirical knowledge accrued is another myth, or at least a supposed advantage that is greatly enhanced. Does this knowledge magically seep into players such as De Gea, Jones and Young?

Furthermore, did Blackburn not win it in ’95 at only the second time of asking? What about Chelsea in 2005? Both occasions the title winners that year had only experienced a very short spell at the highest echelon and both clubs had finished runners-up the previous campaign. Completing this pattern, last season City finished level on points with Chelsea for second place.

It is plainly wrong to dismiss Mancini’s three Scudettos won in a league that can only be topped through tactical wiliness and the holding of one’s nerve while World Cup winner Silva and Champion’s League winners Toure and Tevez are hardly likely to find the slew of must-win games ahead to be anything but the norm.

And if anyone can picture the cool colossus Kompany getting all jittery as the pressure builds then you sir have a vivid imagination.

Mind games and United’s past experience are little more than an irrelevant distraction hyped up by the media and throughout the pubs of England.

Yet sadly I still believe that United will pip my beloved blues but here are the real reasons why…..


What a time for City’s quicksilva to turn to lead. The Spanish magician was on another planet for the first half of the season, jinking and scheming and forever finding pockets of space no matter how tenaciously he was man-marked. He was the catalyst of everything that was great about the blues at a time when they were producing some truly extraordinary performances. So consistently high was his standard of play that a misplaced pass would be greeted by a surprised guffaw and a collective ironic cheer from the enraptured Etihad crowd.

An ankle injury in mid-January prompted a consequent and alarming dip in form however and the trajectory continues downward – from the supernatural to the ordinary to the anonymous. While City fans cling to the hope that Merlin is still struggling with his ankle and a short lay-off will revitalise his magical talents I worry there is something more elusive afoot. Silva is creation personified – his entire game is built around inspiration – and, Messi aside, it is impossible for any player regardless of ability to maintain such an astonishing peak for so long. I believe he has the footballer’s version of writer’s block. His creative juices have run dry. He is John, Paul, George and Ringo after writing the White Album.

With City stuttering and looking pondersome on occasion now is the time we really need such imagination to open teams up. Now is the time we are without it.

United play the teams in summer shorts?

It has been widely reported that City face by far the most difficult of the two run-ins that includes a momentous visit to the Emirates and a trip to Carrow Road to face a Norwich side who were abysmal at the Etihad in the corresponding fixture but who are an energetic and troublesome proposition on home soil.

United meanwhile have a run of games that may as well have been hand-picked by Ferguson himself.

Let’s assume however that City manage to negotiate their way through to the Holy mother and Mary of all Manchester derbies still very much in with a shout. And let us further assume they then triumph on April 30th.

Well even then the odds remain very much stacked in United’s favour with their final two games against sides who will have one eye on a Dubai beach sipping cocktails.

At any other time during the season an encounter with Swansea – even at Old Trafford – would represent a tricky challenge. By the start of May however the Jacks will have achieved their desired mid-table accomplishment and will be playing out the campaign.

Sunderland too is a similar story. Martin O’Neill has fired up the Mackems into being a feared foe, but on the final day with little to play for besides possibly clinching 8th rather than 9th spot they will surely be a pale imitation of the team who have clattered and scrapped for every second ball.

City face a daunting trip to Newcastle who will presumably be fighting for a European place before possibly hosting a QPR side in desperate need of three points to secure top flight safety.

Experienced heads

While there may be little to be found in the club’s previous exploits in such circumstances the same cannot be said of United possessing been-there-and-seen-that players at the heart of the team. Patrick Vieira was right in recently claiming that the return of Scholes suggested desperation from the Reds to compensate for a deficiency in their engine room but now that they’re hoisted themselves into the reckoning the greying ginger head could prove crucial. Now is not the time for fantasy football and bombast; it is all about keeping things ticking over and tempering the pressure by going through the motions with the minimum of fuss. For that Scholes is the grandmaster supreme. He will be United’s metronome, maintaining possession with short simple passes and keeping everything flowing along. With the option of throwing on Giggs too there is little chance of panic setting in during the latter stages of tight games where three points are at an absolute premium. A case in point was Norwich away where United nicked it at the very death. This could well be looked back on as the defining moment of the season when the pendulum swung in United’s favour. The scorers that day when it looked likely City would extend their lead and finally secure some breathing space? Scholes and Giggs.

Johnson has become inhibited and forgotten his primary function.


We’ll let the pundits wax lyrical about the White Pele while we concentrate our attentions on the one man who could yet prove to be the defining difference between both Manchester clubs: Antonio Valencia. As the tension mounts up and desperation creeps in the temptation is to bulldoze your way through inferior opposition. I fear City will depend more than ever on Yaya Toure’s marauding runs through central areas but increasingly head into road-blocks as teams continue to place ten men behind the ball. Such teams need to be stretched and pulled out of position. If you can’t go through then go around.

This will certainly be the case down the road. At Old Trafford they have an out-and-out winger whose directness and delivery has already brought them multiple goals this term. When the ball is played to him there is only one thing in Valencia’s mind; to nudge it past the full-back and whip in a dangerous cross. It is simple yet devastatingly effective. You can clearly see his intention yet prevention is nigh-on impossible.

We used to have such a player at City though of much more of a trickier type. His name was Adam Johnson. Sadly Mancini became so obsessed with his negligible work-rate that the lad is now become so preoccupied with avoiding a post-match dress-down – simple nothing ball, retain possession and take no risks – that he forgets to actually take players on anymore.

City’s away form

The 1-0 triumph at Villa Park in early February gave me genuine hope that this could indeed by City’s year. While all the attention was on Suarez avoiding the proffered hand of Evra at Old Trafford City travelled to a club struggling for form but who still needed to be beaten. They did so with a professional and ground-out performance. The stuff of potential champions.

March however has garnered just one point from a possible nine away from the Etihad home bankers and while this is concerning in truth the malaise has been setting in for awhile. Since the new year in fact City have failed to translate their arrogant swagger on home soil to fields afar. It may well be too late in the day to inaugurate a change in mentality and method but City must considerably up the tempo away from home. To this end the re-emergence of Tevez provides hope as his scavaging and scurrying may unsettle defences who would otherwise be dealing with pedestrian strikers working the line awaiting possession to finally reach them.

The patient build-up play may have worked wonders until recently when City were fluent and imperious but without that sprinkle of magic from Silva – and with too many players below their best – City are beginning to look predictable.

At home this is far less of a problem due to the lack of ambition showed by most opposition. Away however it’s becoming a real issue.

Old Trafford

This final reason has been tacked on after witnessing last night’s game but in truth I could have written these words yesterday, last week, or at any point in the past twenty years.

United looked abysmal during the first half against Fulham yet Martin Jol’s team were content to merely try and contain them rather than cause problems themselves. For the umpteenth time during the past couple of seasons Ferdinand and co looked there for the taking yet once again the away side were too afraid to take anything but the avoidance of a potential hammering.

When are teams and managers going to realise that the best chance to get anything from Old Trafford is to attack them and expose their weaknesses that are plainly there. Was the Bilbao games not shown in West London?

The fact is that Old Trafford has a fear factor but it’s a fear of something from the past, like feeling unnerved walking down an alley where you were once mugged.

This fear factor also extends to officials. Did anyone seriously think that Fulham would be awarded a penalty so late in the game despite it being so stonewall it could have featured on the opening credits to Emmerdale? My own personal reaction – after seeing the incident and KNOWING it was a penalty – was not to jump up and shout ‘Pen!’ It was to shout ‘Don’t bottle it ref. Don’t you f***ing dare bottle it’.

He bottled it.

With all of the above in mind it is difficult to see anything but another league title heading United’s way.

I hope I’m wrong and that for once my heart wins out.