Saturday 16 December 2017

Manchester's grip unlikely to be loosened

Paul Hayward

If this title race is to be more than a battle for the hearts and minds of Manchester, then the teams below United and City need to make up ground fast.

The next 12 days are an anti-holiday for Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal as London's big three attempt to head off another year of Mancunian domination.

Last May, Manchester looked a lot like the Premier League's capital and Chelsea and Spurs now trail second-placed City by seven points, with United a further six points up the table. Unless one club leaps from the chasing pack there is every reason to think the English title will not be leaving the north west in the foreseeable future.

The packed Christmas panto of four games in 12 days is seldom the decisive phase on the 38-match road to May. There is this year, though, an abnormally heavy leaning towards the two empires owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan (City) and the Glazers (United).

Textbook instability at Chelsea and regression for Arsenal has reduced the threat to City and United, but neither can be fully satisfied with their work approaching the halfway mark.


United have relied on escapology to overturn leads in many games and City have not found the rhythm and flow of last autumn and winter.

Absent even from the Europa League draw after a dismal Champions League group stage, City can now fix their thoughts on retaining their Premier League title as they endeavour to wipe out United's six-point advantage against Reading, Sunderland, Norwich and Stoke.

City's astonishing comeback from eight points back in April to win the title owed a lot to their own tenacity and talent but an equal amount to United's 4-4 home draw with Everton and defeat at Wigan. Both Manchester behemoths now have a clearer idea of each other's capabilities on a title run-in and calculations will be adjusted to take account of last spring's events.

City will not want to be so far behind again and United will be complacency-phobic after their trauma on the final day. Even though they'll probably be without their injured captain Vincent Kompany, City will be relishing today's visit by Reading, who have one win from 17 league fixtures.

Samir Nasri may also be missing for the entire Christmas slog, but City fans will mind that less. In his memoirs, former France coach Raymond Domenech writes of Nasri: "In a group, he always pushes where it hurts and reveals the sore spot instead of soothing it. And as a playmaker, he is just illusory." Take that.

While Sergio Aguero is City's top Premier League scorer with six, Robin van Persie continues to transform United's forward play, with 12 in the league and 15 overall. It may not be too reductionist to say United's hopes of regaining control of Manchester's streets hang on Van Persie's ability to finish the season the way he started it.

Equally, City need more from Aguero, Carlos Tevez and the reprieved (again) Mario Balotelli to put the squeeze back on.

One payback for the ludicrous fixture congestion is that none of the top-five clubs have to face each other, thus maximising the opportunities for points accumulation. Conversely, those lesser teams who have shone up until now – Everton, West Brom, Norwich – have to avoid falling back into mid-table contentment.

Above them, Spurs have settled under Andre Villas-Boas, winning five of their past six games. Stoke, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Reading offer chances to maintain that momentum and root Tottenham back in the Champions League place they occupied under Harry Redknapp.

Just as City have usurped United, so Spurs would claim to be north London's No 1 team. But Arsenal are recovering some of their old poise with two consecutive league wins and a parading of their new young British "core" with pens hovering and contracts laid out.

Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey all bought the Arsene Wenger promise of jam tomorrow and will now be asked to grow up fast. Lukas Podolski, an imported Gunner, said: "First place is (now) very tough, but the season is long and when we fight, play our game and do not lose stupid points, I think we can go for the top four."

Liverpool are way back in 12th but they too will be frantic to start 2013 in a better place. Their manager, Brendan Rodgers, said: "It's obviously a busy period and the players are human beings. You have to prepare the team and look at the physical recovery in between games, but that is for the staff and the management to do."

QPR's trip to Newcastle is a reminder of how far Harry Redknapp has dropped from visits to Madrid and Milan with Spurs. Redknapp, a transfer-window specialist, will not sympathise with Newcastle as they contemplate the biggest of all Christmas moments: the opening of the January market, in which Alan Pardew's team could lose Demba Ba.

This being football, a new year starts with the strong preying on the weak. First, though, a carousel of winter pleasures. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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