Record-breakers and first-timers
Manchester United aren’t just going to win this 20th top-flight title – they are very likely going to win it in record-breaking fashion. And that has as much to do with Manchester City’s failings as it has to do with United’s strengths.
The current record points haul for a 38-game Premier League season stands at 95. It was set by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea back in the 2004/05 season. United currently sit on 74 points after 29 games and can make it to 101 if they win their remaining matches. Even if they slip up once or twice they will still break the record.
United have actually already lost two more games than Chelsea did in their record-setting season (when only City beat them) but the Blues drew 12 times in that campaign and still won the league by 12 points. United haven’t drawn a single game at home (winning 14 of 15) and have done so only twice on their travels.
The team that has been drawing is City. They have already been held eight times this season and although they suffered only their fourth defeat of the campaign at Goodison Park on Saturday, they are 15 points behind their cross-city rivals. They simply do not have the recovery powers of last season and have failed to win any of the seven games in which they have trailed.
With United out of Europe and capable of winning the FA Cup if they can get past Chelsea, there is every reason to believe they have the squad to handle both competitions. If Robin van Persie rediscovers his mojo (he has now not scored in seven games in all competitions, having notched 12 in 14 before that), and United beat City in the league on April 8, there is every chance they will win by the highest points margin ever in the history of this league. The record stands at 18 points and was set by United themselves in 1999/2000.
So, United’s pursuit of the record will provide some drama come season’s end, but the real competition for places will occur in the quest for Champions League football where Spurs are under serious pressure.
This weekend, Chelsea strengthened their claim to one of the available spots as Juan Mata and Eden Hazard produced a simply amazing double act. The Belgian notched his eighth league goal and his 12th in all competitions while the Spaniard became the first player to both score and assist 10 or more goals this league season. Don’t be surprised if they even inspire the Stamford Bridge outfit to a second-place finish.
Arsenal must also now fancy their chances of once again overhauling North London rivals Tottenham after Spurs suffered a shock defeat at home to Fulham. Let me emphasize what a surprise that result was. When Dimitar Berbatov scored, he notched Fulham’s first goal in five Premier League games at the Lane. It led to the club’s first win in nine league games there and it was also only a second win in 43 London derby games played away from Craven Cottage.
Now, take a look at Arsenal’s fixtures over the next few weeks and it’s obvious how important that win at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday was. They host struggling Reading next, then play West Bromwich Albion and Norwich before their game in hand at home to Everton in mid-April. In that same period, Spurs must play Swansea, Everton and Chelsea and they also have the European distraction of home and away games against Basle. Injuries to Aaron Lennon and Michael Dawson came at a bad time and the reliance on Gareth Bale has been highlighted by the failure of Spurs’ strikers to provide goals. If Andre Villas-Boas does manage to emulate Harry Redknapp’s fourth-place finish of last season, it will be a huge achievement.
Elsewhere this weekend, two unsung heroes caught the eye. I’ve written before about the brilliant work done for Southampton by hard-working French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, but when he neatly turned in a Jay Rodriguez nod-down, he took his goal tally for the season to five in the league. In his previous four seasons for the club (at a lower level), he scored only three league goals. Schneiderlin has just scored three in his last six games in the world’s toughest league.
The scorer of Everton’s opening goal against City, Leon Osman, also deserves a mention. It was his third goal in five games in all competitions, at a time when Everton have been wobbling, and it took him to five for the season – his best since season 2008/09 when he scored six. He has undoubtedly been one of the unsung stars of this season.
Lastly, another of Sunday’s matches produced two first-time goal-scorers who must not go unremarked upon. Wigan’s Jean Beausejour opened the scoring at the DW Stadium and in doing so produced his first goal in any competition for the club on his 48th appearance. He has been an outstanding supplier of crosses for Wigan this season (as well as last) and it is amazing he has not featured on the scoresheet before.
But 48 games is nothing compared to the wait Davide Santon had to endure before scoring not just his first Newcastle goal, but the first goal of his senior career, in any competition, for any club. He went goalless for Inter Milan (53 games), Cesena (11 games during a loan spell) and Newcastle (62 games before Sunday), making it a 127-game wait for his first celebration. Oh – and he has also played eight times for Italy and 12 times for their under-21s without scoring. Surely that elusive strike must now be just around the corner. He is, after all, on a hot streak.