x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

United they will stand at end of Premier League season

Andrew Cole makes a case that the defending league champions have kept pace with their crosstown rivals and have the mental toughness to provide an edge in title race


Manchester United will win the English Premier League this season.

City have been outstanding at times, they may even boast better individuals and they've certainly spent more money, but United have a better team spirit and, crucially, experience.

Joe Hart said that City are suffering from the pressure after their Boxing Day draw at West Brom.

He's right. City are now the team to beat and sides will do anything to take points off them, even if they play so defensively that they only intend to get a draw.

City will be stressed by the expectations of the media, their own fans, rival supporters and themselves.

Moving clear of the pack after beating the champions 6-1 away will have given them huge confidence, but maybe that game came too early in the season to be crucial.

The City players laughed as they made a Christmas cake with 6-1 etched in the icing on top of it. Sir Alex Ferguson would never have allowed that, and he'll make sure that every United player knows about it.

My old boss turns 70 on Saturday and he is just as motivated as ever.

He never lets up. I remember when we had won the league one season by mid-April and he continued to prepare for every game like it was the European Cup final.

Sometimes circumstances went against him, like in March 1998 when we had an injury list to match United's current one. It was a key month, yet we were missing Schmeichel, Scholes, Pallister, Giggs, both Neville brothers, Butt, Ronny Johnsen and our talisman captain, Keane, at some point in that month.

We just didn't have the squad to deal with that level of injuries and were overtaken by an Arsenal side which sensed their opportunity.

We'd had a 12-point lead over them at one stage, but as the injuries mounted, Arsenal kept chipping away. Closing the gap gave them the momentum we had earlier, and they dealt us the biggest psychological blow by beating us at Old Trafford with a single Marc Overmars goal. We heard the Arsenal players celebrating, as was their right. They had done us and were worthy champions.

We could blame injuries, but United didn't have the squad they have now. And United, despite what some critics say, have a squad to withstand their massive injury problems this season. They have proved that by closing the gap on the City so that the two teams are now equal on points. This is one of United's best starts to the season - despite all the injuries and criticism.

United could currently field a full team of injured players. Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Fabio da Silva are all out of the defence. Add to that Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Anderson, missing from midfield, while forwards Ashley Young and Michael Owen are crocked.

The United team against Wigan Athletic on Boxing Day was makeshift, but they won 5-0. Wigan are not Barcelona, but if United can close a gap with so many players out and look so convincing as they have done in December (Champions League aside), what are they going to be like when they all come back?

Only Anderson and Fletcher are long-term injuries, so the manager is likely to get a steady stream of returning players at absolutely key points of the season.

Despite the criticism he has faced this season, Ferguson has enjoyed being the hunter rather than hunted. Once again, he has used the words of doubters as motivation.

His players have been criticised by their own fans and written off in their own city. I live in Manchester, and I heard what people were saying barely two months ago. The result is that United have an unmatched mental toughness which comes into its own at the business end.

So what about City? There is no crisis, as they have more league points than ever at this stage in the season and led the league at Christmas for the first time since 1929. So far, so good then.

They have scored more goals than any other team and hammered their greatest rivals 6-1 away - and yet they've still not been able to shake off United. They have not been arrogant, but perhaps a little too self-assured. When things haven't gone right, like this month, I'm seeing cracks. You know a manager is feeling the pressure when he starts to criticise the fixture list. All of this will play into United's hands.

Then there is the key question of experience. City do not have one player who has been involved in a title race in England, not one to advise them of what is going on during what Fergie calls "squeaky bum time".

It is a wonderful title race, the most intriguing for years and still only at the halfway point. City climbed into the ring with the biggest heavyweight in England. They are holding their own and have recorded one knockdown, but United keep getting back up for more.

This one is going to points.


Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European Football correspondent Andy Mitten.