Sir Alex Ferguson clutches at straws as title slips away

 

As he stood before the Stretford End and promised those who had stayed behind "the celebration of our lives" on Sunday, you wondered how much of Sir Alex Ferguson really believed it.

There have been few victories at Old Trafford that have felt so empty. As time dribbled away and Swansea passed slickly among themselves, Manchester United looked a beaten side. You had to remind yourself they were actually winning the game, 2-0.

For the first time since English football reinvented itself with the Premier League, the title is likely to be decided on goal difference. As Gary Neville remarked, this will infuriate Ferguson as much as the fact that the likely champions will be the arrivistes from east Manchester.

He had always emphasised the importance of goal difference and now, even if City overcome Queen's Park Rangers by a single goal, United would need a 9-0 win at the Stadium of Light to take the title on goals scored. For the record, Manchester United's biggest win at Sunderland is a 5-1 rout in November 1981.

It will, however, be an even closer title race than the one that saw Blackburn win out by a single point in 1995. Then, Ferguson attempted to unnerve Kenny Dalglish by saying Blackburn might "do a Devon Loch" – a horse Ferguson's father had backed. Dalglish had deadpanned that he could not understand why he was being compared to a stretch of water in Scotland. Roberto Mancini will never have heard of a horse that collapsed in the Grand National's final furlong eight years before he was born.

Even before United's final home game kicked off, there was an acceptance that the decisive moment had passed. In his programme notes, Ferguson reviewed the season and remarked that the chaotic 4-4 draw with Everton last month had been "pivotal".

In December, he had sat in the press room at St Jakob-Park and pronounced that United had been eliminated from the Champions League not by their 2-1 defeat at Basle but the 3-3 draw with the Swiss champions that had preceded it.

The fact remains that United's reputation for ruthlessness at the season's business end has exploded. They had the experience and a relatively straightforward run-in and they saw an eight-point lead evaporate in the space of three weeks. When he looks back, Ferguson might conclude that Mancini's tactic of publicly conceding the title – one he himself used to unnerve Celtic and win his first title with Aberdeen as long ago as 1980 – had been successful.

Not since 1992, when United led Leeds by five points with a game in hand with five matches to play, have they stumbled like this. Then, Ferguson raged against the fixture list and the "obscenity" of how a relegated team, West Ham, raised their game to beat United. Now, he must hope a team like QPR, still fearing relegation, will do the same.

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