United's ability to endure key for Ferguson
Such has been the unconvincing nature of Manchester United's unbeaten start to the season that bookmaker Skybet is offering odds of 50/1 that Alex Ferguson's team will avoid defeat throughout the entire Premier League campaign yet still fail to win the title.
Put simply, United might be hard to beat, but they are finding it just as difficult to secure the victories that define the difference between nearly men and champions.
United will secure top spot -- for 24 hours at least -- for the first time this season if they stretch their unbeaten run in all competitions to 29 games against Blackburn at Old Trafford today, but how have they managed to move to within touching distance of the summit after such an indifferent start to the campaign?
Is their unbeaten sequence a mark of United's quality, tenacity and durability or merely a reflection of the once mighty beast of the Premier League becoming a toothless tiger? Where is the wow factor?
Throughout their unbeaten run, which dates back to the 2-1 league defeat at home to Chelsea on April 3, United have rarely, if at all, produced the marauding football that has defined their success under Ferguson.
In 2010, United do not possess the flair of Arsenal's 'Invincibles' or the destructive power of Ferguson's elite from two years ago. It has been all substance and hardly any style, but maybe that is sufficient in a Premier League that is arguably on a downward trajectory from the peak of United's Champions League final win against Chelsea in 2008.
As in the World Cup, the smaller teams are becoming better organised and defensively astute, yet the difference in the Premier League is that the unfancied outfits have discovered that a bolder approach can work, such as in West Brom's draw at Old Trafford and victory at Arsenal, plus Sunderland's win at Chelsea.
United have avoided the humiliating home defeats suffered by their powerful rivals, however, and that is why they can snatch top spot today. But within their 28-game unbeaten streak, there have been nine draws, and costly points dropped through the concession of late goals.
Wayne Rooney has been involved in just 13 games since the Chelsea defeat, while Dimitar Berbatov has gone 13 hours without scoring. Yet United, somehow, have overcome the poor form, loss of key players and blunted cutting edge to prolong their run without defeat which has, typically, included crucial late goals against Bolton, Valencia, Wolves, Aston Villa and Rangers.
The late goals provide the one thread that has run through every United team under Ferguson.
United's fitness coach, Tony Strudwick, explained: "Typically, teams have to work physically harder against us than we will against them. When they're chasing the kind of players we have, with the movement they have and the way they do things, it will take its toll towards the end of games. We don't train for 90 minutes because we want to be fresh for the games. We train and play in a way that helps players exert their influence on a game over 96 minutes."
Ferguson's current team are not comparable to the 2008 squad, a fact surely borne out by last week's front two against Wigan of Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan.
But while Manchester City have spent in excess of £350m on new players since then, they still remain short of matching United on the pitch. Tottenham, for all their glory nights in Europe, slumped to defeat at Old Trafford last month.
United's Premier League rivals might be closing the gap but it was pretty wide to begin with and, despite the reduced investment in the team since the £30.75m purchase of Berbatov in September 2008, the priceless commodities of experience and nous remain well stocked.
It is the intangible assets that are sustaining United and Ferguson does not hide from that reality.
"We should have lost by six at Aston Villa and somehow got a point out of it," he said. "That says a lot about the character of the human beings I've got. At least I know I've got players who are prepared to do something -- and did something -- about that situation at Villa Park. It's a quality that's part of our history. That's the nature of the club."
Next month's crunch encounters with Arsenal and Chelsea will prove a stern test of United's state of health, but maybe the game has changed and perhaps, in an age of austerity, they are reflecting the new reality. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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