By Aidan Elder | Chief Sports Writer
Seven points. 16 games to go. You may as well start misspelling ‘Manchester United‘ on the Premier League trophy right now. As I showed before Christmas, no league leaders with an advantage of six points or more in the third week of December has ever gone on to lose the title. The stats tell us we should stick a fork in it right now, but it’s rarely that simple in the dramatic world of the Premier League.
In the spirit of pretending it’s still all up for grabs, here’s a possible scenario of how United could lose their substantial advantage. And it’s plausible because it doesn’t involve a ridiculous ABU bias, an unrealistic collapse from Fergie’s men or someone kidnapping Robin van Persie’s legs. In fact, it doesn’t even involve the Reds losing in the league again this season, which, given some of their defending, is rather flattering.
The interesting thing about the projection is it isn’t actually all that far-fetched or dramatic. Yes, the Sky Sports pundits will be jumping around the studio as if they’ve just discovered the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, but the sequence of events isn’t that implausible. It involves United slipping up on a handful of banana-skins and not finding a 96th minute winner in a few games of their remaining games, nothing more.
First up, is a crunch game for the current table-toppers. In recent seasons, United have treated White Hart Lane like a local yoof treats the Tottenham branch of JJB Sports by going in and taking pretty much whatever they want. Sunday’s visitors haven’t been beaten at the Lane in 11 games, picking up eight wins over the course of that run.
Those stats don’t bode well for the prospect of an upset, but Spurs’ win at Old Trafford earlier in the season and the general progress the club have made under Andre Villas-Boas suggests United should have it tougher this time around. 24 hours earlier, City should have beaten Fulham at the Etihad stadium. By the end of the weekend, the gap could be four or five points. All of a sudden, the insurmountable lead starts to look mountable.
After that, there’s a sequence of games lower to mid-table opposition you would expect both Manchester clubs to navigate with minimal fuss. That may seem a little harsh on Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea, but with home advantage on their side in each of those games, both City and United will be favoured to win.
There are possibilities of dropped points here and there in the build-up to the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. City’s trip to Goodison Park to take on their bogey side stands out as one very slippery banana skin and based on the evidence of their FA Cup third round tie, United will have it tough when they go to Upton Park for a game against the Hammers. And if – that should be a bigger ‘if’ than the font size communicates – Sunderland continue the progress of the last few weeks, dropped points at the Stadium of Light aren’t out of the question.
The (kind of) decisive derby
The only certainty we know about the Manchester Derby is that Sky Sports will hype it to within an inch of its life. It’s hard to pick a result in this one, but I’ve shown off my fence-sitting ability by going for a draw. Obviously if either United or City can claim the win, it will be a decisive step towards the title, but making predictions at this point is as worthless as a gift voucher for HMV.
It’s not too important because it’s the games after the derby that are crucial. Judging by his disgruntled comments about fixture congestion in the past, the United boss has more than once contemplated throwing a glass of water over the fixtures computer, but the temptation to break out the Evian may be even greater than normal this time around. The mysterious machine has handed United one of the tougher possible run-ins.
A few weeks back, Lord Fergie was sitting smugly saying something along the lines of ‘we’ve played most of the big teams away from home already’. That may be true, but the closing weeks of the season offer a few tricky away days.
Stoke will be as ‘sledgehammer cracking a walnut’ as ever, Arsenal could be on the ‘hot’ part of their ‘blowing hot and cold’ cycle and West Brom have been tricky opponents for United at the Hawthorns in recent seasons. Except for the time they lost 5-0. Villa and Swansea’s trips to Old Trafford should yield six points, but the visit of Chelsea isn’t such a banker. You would think United should beat the struggling Pensioners, but they’ve got just enough ‘moody mercurial’ for that not to be a gimme.
City aren’t likely to be flawless in their run-in either. They also have to visit White Hart Lane and with Reading likely to still be fighting tooth and nail for that Premier League survival they don’t look likely to achieve, the trip to the Madjeksi Stadium isn’t a chicken that should be counted just yet.
Still though, if they can recapture the determination they in the closing weeks of last season, it’s possible they could earn 42 points from the remaining games, with United picking up only 34 not a total impossibility. It would leave City on 90 points with United one behind and make for a final day of the season Gary Neville might just explode into a cloud of hysterical excitement, but it’s not out of the question by any means.
Shock and draw
To somewhat back up all this wild speculation with something remotely statistical, United are due more draws. Over the course of the 20 Premier League seasons, they’ve drawn an average of 8.1 league games a season.
Now if you cast your mind back to the mid 90s when a foreign player was still an amusing novelty and not yet a convenient scapegoat to blame for diving, Premier League seasons were longer by four games. That somewhat explains the surprisingly high average, but even we completely ignore it by looking back over the last ten years, the average is still seven draws per league campaign.
United have one draw to their name this season, so although it’s about as scientific the Old Testament’s explanation for everything, it’s very likely that number will increase, possibly to the point where it allows City back into the race. Depending on City’s form, four or five draws down the stretch would open the door for the defending champions and as last season showed us, they’ve got more steel than your usual bunch of well-paid prima-donnas.
United are certainly in the driving seat and City will have to pull it out of the bag once again, but they’ve got the better run-in. That may not be enough to claw back the deficit, but we shouldn’t rule them out just yet. Leave that until the four minutes of added time have elapsed on the final day of the season.
The predicitions in full
Manchester City v Fulham – 3 points
Tottenham v Manchester United – 1 point
QPR v Manchester City – 3 points
Manchester United v Southmapton- 3 points
Manchester City v Liverpool – 3 points
Fulham v Manchester United – 3 points
Southampton v Manchester City – 3 points
Manchester United v Everton – 3 points
Manchester City v Chelsea – 3 points
QPR v Manchester United – 3 points
Aston Villa v Manchester City – 3 points
Manchester United v Norwich – 3 points
Manchester City v Wigan – 3 points
West Ham v Manchester United – 1 point
Everton v Manchester City – 1 point
Manchester United v Reading – 3 points
Manchester City v Newcastle – 3 points
Sunderland v Manchester United – 1 point
Manchester United v Manchester City – 1 point each
Manchester City v West Brom – 3 points
Stoke v Manchester United – 1 point
Tottenham v Manchester City- 1 point
Manchester United v Aston Villa – 3 points
Manchester City v West Ham – 3 points
Arsenal v Manchester United – 1 point
Swansea v Manchester City- 3 points
Manchester United v Chelsea – 1 point
Reading v Manchester City- 3 points
Manchester United v Swansea – 3 points
Manchester City v Norwich – 3 points
West Brom v Manchester United – 1 point