When Patrice Evra starts talking about Manchester United's "team spirit", he is usually up to something. Last season he ramped up the pressure on the pretenders to their title, Manchester City, and with Boxing Day's 5-0 dismantling of Wigan evidence that United have turned the corner of an underwhelming season, he did it again, claiming United will finish top of the pile come May.
A year ago, the French defender provoked City with the statement that "they always say they are a bigger club and they never beat us... We keep winning because we are confident. That's the Manchester United spirit. We just know when we play with that spirit we can beat anyone."
On Boxing Day, Evra was part of a makeshift back four – owing to an injury list that would break lesser clubs – that placed him as a 5ft 8in central defender alongside Michael Carrick, with midfielder Antonio Valencia at right-back, and 19-year-old Ezekiel Fryers at left-back. They still managed to keep a clean sheet. Evra said: "We're going to win because it's the team effort and team spirit. This is the United spirit: you can play everywhere [in any position] – if you want to win you have to accept it. The team is the star, not one player."
If that was a barb directed at the blue half of Manchester, it is unlikely to affect City's manager, Roberto Mancini, who has coped with training-ground scuffles and Carlos Tevez's pitchside mutiny by taking the club to the top of the league at Christmas.
But if Evra, like United, has suffered a traumatic season so far, including that 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, things are looking up. The Luis Suarez case is resolved in his favour and the squad have got over their early European ejection with five league wins on the bounce. They are level on points with City, and with their rivals stuttering – a draw against West Bromwich Albion and defeat at Chelsea of late – Evra feels momentum is with the champions.
"If we win and score goals and keep many clean sheets, like we did against Wigan, we're going to be top at the end of the season," he said.
As the race for the title narrows into what looks a two-horse contest, and City's goalkeeper Joe Hart admitted to "feeling the pressure" at The Hawthorns, Evra has carefully chosen his moment to go on the offensive.
"The Man United spirit," he said. "No one team has got that spirit. This is United. This is why I'm so proud to play here." There is that word "spirit" again. It means United, and Evra, are back in the mood.