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The championship is now realistically between Arsenal, above in yellow, and Manchester United, in red, but Andrew Cole still believes that it will be United and Sir Alex Ferguson, their manager, who will win the title in May. Dave Thompson / PA
The championship is now realistically between Arsenal, above in yellow, and Manchester United, in red, but Andrew Cole still believes that it will be United and Sir Alex Ferguson, their manager, who will win the title in May. Dave Thompson / PA

Top spot gives United edge: Cole

From my experience, it is the team leading that has the advantage when the title race goes down to the wire.

Manchester United's loss at Chelsea on Tuesday has made the Premier League title race very exciting for neutrals. I am not neutral and I am still angry at some of the refereeing decisions at Stamford Bridge, but the race between United and Arsenal is perfectly set.

I was involved in several title races in my career and it is always better to be on top rather than chasing, even though we won the league once by chasing and lost it once when we had been 12 points clear of Arsenal, the eventual champions.

I arrived at Old Trafford in January 1995 to find United going after Blackburn Rovers, who were leading the league. We hunted them down to the last game of the season, where we needed to win at West Ham and hope that Blackburn did not win at Liverpool. The title would be decided in those 90 minutes.

I hit a post and forced two great saves from their goalkeeper who had the game of his life. I did my utmost, but we could not score a winning goal and Blackburn won the league.

I got slaughtered by the media for missing chances, but I hit the target with every shot, except that one that hit the woodwork.

A season later we were chasing my old club Newcastle United. They were 12 points ahead of us at one point but were beginning to falter, something I realised when I saw my old boss Kevin Keegan ranting on television. I knew then we were getting under his skin and that his side would start to slip. I saw it as an opportunity and told my teammates.

Kevin was a good man, but an emotional heart-on-sleeve type of personality. He used to have a little tantrum if he was under pressure and would not speak to you for three or four days after a game if we had lost, but then he would be all: "Come all lads, let's win at the weekend."

Sir Alex Ferguson was different. You knew that you would have to graft at the end of the season and that there were no excuses for poor performances. And because the players had the experience of being in such situations, they dealt with it better than teams leading the league for the first time, like Newcastle.

We played Newcastle away and beat them 1-0 in a vital game, thanks to Peter Schmeichel, our goalkeeper, who had an outstanding game. Eric Cantona got the goal and the praise, but Schmeichel was the main man. We could have lost the match 4-0, but for his inspired performance. We had got them and they knew it.

Two years later, in 1998, it was our turn to throw away a lead. We had been 12 points clear of Arsenal but started to weaken after Christmas when we were usually strong and lost stupidly against Southampton and Leicester in successive weeks.

It was not psychological as it had been two years earlier - we were missing key players through injury, like our captain Roy Keane, and Arsenal were not. They came to Old Trafford and beat us 1-0 with a Marc Overmars goal. He was so quick and took a chance that gave them three points. That gave them the momentum. We would not lose again, but the damage had been done and Arsenal were ahead.

In 1999 we beat Arsenal to the league. They had a great side, but we were in front and knew our fate was in our hands. There was so little to separate us that we went to a replay and extra time in an FA Cup match. We ended up winning the treble, Arsenal won nothing.

It is Arsenal and United again - despite United not playing that well this season. If United win their remaining 10 games then they will be champions.

Of course, that will be tough but United are capable of going on a run and so are Arsenal. I think their defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final last weekend will make them more determined to win their first trophy since 2005.

As for the others, I do not believe that Manchester City, in third, or Chelsea, in fourth, are still in the title race. Realistically, they are playing for a top four finish to get into the Champions League next season.

United are in pole position. If you are top of the league then you only have to worry about your own results, but if Arsenal win tomorrow they will be just one point behind United on the same amount of games.

United then have to go to Liverpool on Sunday - a huge match which they simply cannot afford to lose. If they do, then two consecutive defeats could make for the mini-implosion which costs league titles.

 

Andrew Cole is the second-leading goalscorer in Premier League history. His column is written with the assistance of correspondent Andy Mitten

sports@thenational.ae

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