Sir Alex Ferguson declared yesterday that 82 points may be enough to win the most unpredictable Premier League title race for years and does not rule out the idea of the two Manchester clubs, who occupy the top two spots on equal points going in to the New Year, battling it out at the end.
Ferguson’s predictive title target would be the lowest of any champions since United’s 80 points a decade ago and 13 fewer than Chelsea’s record 2004/5 haul, though the manager dwelt on his conviction that Tottenham are title candidates rather than give any of his press conference time to Manchester City. He also said, coolly, that his former assistant Brian Kidd’s claim that City wouldn’t swap their squad for anyone’s would “bear itself out as the season goes on.”
Other managers share Ferguson’s belief that a low total would win it though, which is why the Manchester City board are nurturing a conviction that they can lift the trophy. The last time United and City occupied the top two slots on a New Year’s Day was in the 1971/72 season, which wound up with City fourth and United eighth as Brian Clough’s Derby County won it. That was another desperately close campaign, in which one point divided the top four teams. The size of the challenge for United is evident in an away record which, before their visit to West Bromwich Albion today, has seen them win only once – at Stoke City. But Ferguson, who said he has spent the last few days wrestling with the points permutations, ascribes significance to the fact that some of United’s toughest away games – at Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – are yet to come.
“We're disappointed that we've dropped points but maybe when you go to these type of games and you know the concentration levels have got to be better,” Ferguson said. “For instance when we went to City, in all fairness we were the far superior team and never looked like losing a goal. That game brought the concentration level up to a higher point for us. But our away form over the years would have given us a better advantage - there's no question of that. I think you'll need to get to 82, 83, to win it. You could have a situation - and certainly it's looking that way at the moment - with five teams involved in the last month of the season. That would be fantastic, it would be a great league, that. The problem would be, poor television, who are they going to pick? They'd play Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday night.”
The White Hart Lane fixture in two weeks’ time is significant, judging by Ferguson’s repeated plaudits for Harry Redknapp’s side, and it is they – rather than City – whom the United manager favours. “That's the point of Tottenham - they've got momentum,” said Ferguson, who will be without Paul Scholes at the Hawthorns and may not restore Nani until Tuesday’s home match with Stoke City. “You saw them at the end of the game the other night, the players celebrating, it was a genuine case of a team thinking 'we've got a chance here'. Harry's instilled that in them and keeps talking about them having a great chance. If you think about having that chance it can happen to you. At the moment there is a fearlessness there, yes. But when it comes to the last month, that will search out the real winners.”
Ferguson, who confirmed he would be allowing Federico Macheda to go out on loan and suggested that he might need Tom Cleverley back from Wigan Athletic this month, said that Wayne Rooney – who is still yet to score from open play for United this season, “does need a goal.”
The lowest points required to win the league since the start of the 38-game season in 1995/6 was United’s 75 point haul in 1996/7. Tight though the finish might turn out to be, United’s unbeaten run up to the turn of the year in the league this season might carry statistical significance: only six clubs have previously managed that feat since 1888 and only one of them – Sheffield United in 1888/9 – have failed to take the title.