Familiarity is breeding contempt for United
The taxi driver, a Manchester United supporter, was as blunt as only his breed can be. "United have only played well once this season, away to Spurs," he insisted. "I can't believe they're still second."
If it was a harsh judgement, there is a kernel of statistical truth in at least the second part of his observation. Seven League defeats have always in the modern era been too grievous a hindrance to prospects of becoming champions of England. That United are still in a position to achieve that aim is testimony to their rivals' failings as much as their own obstinacy.
Perhaps that explained the air of regret as Sir Alex Ferguson discussed this penultimate weekend of the Premier League season, in which his side must effectively win at Sunderland to keep even one hand on the crown that Chelsea are favourites to snatch away. When every single point is so important at this late stage, the temptation is inevitably to look at the ones that slipped away in earlier days, in the defeats by Chelsea themselves, twice, Burnley – Burnley! – Liverpool, Fulham, Everton and at home to Aston Villa.
Grudging in defeat at the best of times, Ferguson was prepared to concede that "Everton battered us" in a 3-1 defeat at Goodison Park. That reverse, and Villa's four points against United, can be attributed, he believes, to those clubs' solid, improving squads.
"I think the present group of teams in the Premier League get used to one another," he said. "There's not the same fear about them playing you again when they've been there for a few years. The present squad of Everton have been there quite a few years, and Aston Villa under Martin O'Neill. So you get a continuity of selection and names and when they go to play United the first time it's difficult, maybe the second time not as difficult and then they get results against you."
His other argument, that injuries to every defender except Patrice Evra have cost dear, may be weakened by the surprising fact that United have still conceded fewer goals than anyone. Yet the figures are complicated. They have already scored far more (81) than in winning the title last season (a modest 68), but for fewer points and almost twice as many defeats.
Ferguson claims to have been confident about the season even without Cristiano Ronaldo, in the knowledge that Wayne Rooney would be playing further forward and that Michael Owen was also available. "Ronaldo's a tremendous loss, there's no doubt about that. He's a great player, the best player in the world. But we were pleased with [Antonio] Valencia and we also thought there was an improvement in some of the younger players, developing and maturing. We thought the rest of the structure was all right, not too bad, particularly the defensive part with great cover there. The couple of games where we were playing [Darren] Fletcher and [Michael] Carrick [in defence] like Fulham away, that was a bad defeat. That may have made the difference. We didn't expect to get the number of injuries we got."
Owen, of course, fell victim to the Wembley pitch in the League Cup final, missing the rest of the campaign, and when Rooney went over on his ankle the following month, Dimitar Berbatov was unable to take on responsibility and scoring duties for crucial games with Chelsea and Blackburn. No wonder the more disillusioned United supporters are already demanding new signings while at the same time doubting whether the Glazer family will finance them.
"The proof of the pudding is the eating, isn't it?" Ferguson says. "They've given me £20m for three players already and any time we've asked, they've supported it. There's no criticism from me because there's no criticism justified. We've signed Chris Smalling for £10m and [Javier] Hernandez for six or seven, [Mame] Diouf for four and a bit. People don't recognise that's 20-odd million on young players, but that's what we like to do, get players who are going to develop in the club, because the long-term view has got to be important at our club."
Ronaldo, he says, is the one player – Lionel Messi is not – whom he would pay £60m for, though even at the world's richest club, the figures associated with such deals horrify him. "Agents get in touch with our chief scout and say 'this player will take a drop in wages from £10m to £8m'. Oh will he? Very good of him. Jesus Christ." He nevertheless adds one tantalising line about possible buys in the close season: "There may be something."
But here we are looking back in anguish and looking forward to summer spending, when a record-breaking title is still there to play for. Red taxi-drivers should cross fingers and say a reluctant prayer for Liverpool, and how different everything could look by half-past three this afternoon.
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