Monday, 12 March 2012

The race is on

"We won't get nervous, we have the experience." The words of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will reverberate around the Etihad Stadium as his side aim to press home their new-found advantage over Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
All to play for: Manchester's top two are set for the title showdown  

City boss Roberto Mancini is convinced that the outcome of the Manchester derby will prove decisive, but given the difficulty of his team's fixtures compared to that of United's, and the clear shift in momentum, the pressure is all on City to make sure they're at least within striking distance of their bitter rivals come 30 April.

Trips to face Stoke (24 March) and Arsenal (8 April) will seriously test City's resolve, as will the visits of Chelsea (21 March) and Sunderland (31 March) to Eastlands.

Those four games come before tricky away fixtures at Norwich (14 April) and Wolves (22 April) and a favourable home match against West Brom (11 April).

United, on the other hand, have generous looking home games against Fulham (26 March), QPR (8 April), Aston Villa (15 April) and Everton (22 April) and visit three of the five relegation candidates; Wolves (18 March), Blackburn (2 April) and Wigan (11 April).

The old cliche goes that anything can happen between now and the end of the season but even the most pessimistic of United supporters would expect the champions to pick up at least 16 points from the next 21 available.

Five wins, one draw and one defeat will take United to 83 points, in which case City would need 14 points from their seven matches to be within three points of the Reds on derby day. If Mancini's men can hold their nerve that's by no means beyond their capabilities. The worry for them is that United could quite easily improve on that tally if they hit anywhere near top form.

Interestingly, both sides have the advantage of playing their fixture before the other on three occasions, with the only simultaneous kick-off, prior to the derby, being on 11 April. Neither manager can have any complaints regarding the scheduling, with the weight of pressure set to switch evenly between the two sides as the season unfolds.

So how will it all pan out? Below is my fixture-by-fixture prediction for both clubs:

Manchester United
18 March Wolves (A) W
26 March Fulham (H) W
2 April Blackburn (A) D
8 April QPR (H) W
11 April Wigan (A) W
15 April Aston Villa (H) W
22 April Everton (H) W
30 April Manchester City (A) D
6 May Swansea (H) W
13 May Sunderland (A) D
Points tally ahead of the derby: 86
Final points tally: 91

Manchester City
21 March Chelsea (H) W
24 March Stoke (A) D
31 March Sunderland (H) W
8 April Arsenal (A) L
11 April West Brom (H) W
14 April Norwich (A) D
22 April Wolves (A) W
30 April Manchester United (H) D
6 May Newcastle (A) W
13 May QPR (H) W
Points tally ahead of the derby: 80
Final points tally: 87

City have the ability to push United all the way but by my reckoning the Red Devils will be crowned champions on the penultimate day of the season. As Sir Alex said, experience will be the most important factor.

Mancini and his squad will gain a huge amount of the crucial ingredient during the title run-in and providing they manage to keep the nucleus of their squad together in the summer, they will undoubtedly come back as an even stronger outfit in 2012/13.

For now though, a 20th league title beckons for United.

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