WHEN an athlete prepares for a big race, everything is designed to deliver peak form at the most important moment.
In those terms, Manchester United are in the zone. It is no easy thing for a sprinter, or indeed a horse trainer, to build through a season until the big day arrives and optimum performance is required.
Imagine, then, what it must be like for Alex Ferguson to manage 20 top-class professional footballers in a dog-eat-dog environment like the Premier League and season after season ‘produce' a team when the race for silverware enters the home straight.
At one level, it is a very complicated process which needs a big staff and plenty of money to do right but as Chelsea and Roman Abramovich have shown so often, throwing money and personnel at a football team can only do so much.
Producing consistent and matchwinning football throughout a season and then stepping up a gear when the games come piling in, each one bigger than the last, requires a degree of self-belief which comes from strong characters and an inspirational leader.
As Ferguson so ably demonstrates, everything becomes very simple indeed when you are the master of your own destiny.
It's worth examining Ferguson's management of Dimitar Berbatov over the past few years and comparing that with Carlo Ancelotti's experience with Fernando Torres.
Ferguson chose Berbatov and was given the money to buy him by the Glazer family. He all but kidnapped him from under Manchester City's nose and it cost him £28million to make a point to his cross-town rivals and capture a player who was shooting the lights out for Spurs.
As we know, Berbatov has been anything but an unqualified success and when it came to the big games this season, he started on the bench.
When a manager shells out big money on any player, there is the natural inclination to give him plenty of scope to settle in – even when form is bad and logic dictates that he should be dropped.
Every poor performance throws up another question about the manager's judgement and the only way out of the loop is for the player to catch fire or the manager to banish him to the bench.
This season, Berbatov linked well with Javier Hernandez and scored goals is a rush but Ferguson doesn't really trust him and has settled on Wayne Rooney and Hernandez as his most potent attacking partnership.
He could only do that because Berbatov was his choice and his player to command. Contrast that with the problems created for Ancelotti when Torres turned up on his training ground; a third party-inspired addition to a squad already badly unsettled by the sacking of Ray Wilkins.
Ancelotti had no choice but to play his new £50m striker and he's been stuck in that hole ever since. In the last three weeks, Ancelotti managed to annoy Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka by choosing Torres ahead of both of them.
Form strongly suggested he should do otherwise. It doesn't take much to produce a frown from either Drogba or Anelka but on this occasion they were well within their rights to be unhappy.
They see a player who can't kick snow off a rope being picked ahead of them and their first instinct must be to kick back against Ancelotti.
But by the looks of things, Ancelotti feels he has to pick Torres come what may and there is absolutely nothing he can do to stop this drain on his authority.
The consequences are stark and Abramovich is left to ponder the ruins of a season which began so well and only came off the rails when Wilkins was removed from his job.
Chelsea have nothing to play for but qualification for Champions League 2011/12 and I have little doubt that we will see chaos at Stamford Bridge between now and the start of next season.
At Old Trafford, Ferguson will move on to the next task carrying some serious momentum and much of that is down to Rooney and Hernandez.
The little Mexican has been chipping away with goals since the start of the season and Rooney is a player transformed.
Ferguson has United exactly where he wants them to be at this stage of the season and I suspect Manchester City will feel the full force of their abilities in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday at Wembley.
The team Ferguson plays on Saturday could be quite different to the one that took to the field at Old Trafford last night.
Ferguson can do that because his players and the club owners trust him implicitly. Simple.