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Fear of failure drives United forward

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Manchester United's goalkeeper David de Gea makes a save during their English Premier League soccer match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in London

They said it couldn’t be done. No team had thrown away an 8-point advantage with 6 games to go in the league.

But United did, and lost the 2011/2012 league title on goal difference to City. It hurt more than the 1-point title defeat to Chelsea two years ago, mostly because United were so far in front. City lapped it up, fans called it their most important moment in history, and Mancini famously survived the sack, putting rest to a Monaco move his agent had all but lined up in anticipation of a City departure.

This season the talk is the same, except the difference in 9 points and 13 games are left. No team has scored as many points as United by this stage in the Premier League. No Premier League team has lost a league title from such a position of strength.

But United have won from City’s position before, and lost titles to bitter rivals before. That comes with the territory. Now the question is, will they lose it twice in a row?

They say that desire is a weaker emotion than the fear of losing – and if United were guilty of complacency last season, the fear of failure will push them on this season. Ferguson rightly noting that the team failed to score enough goals and rectified it by signing three striking options. United, once again, have been a team greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Mancini’s strategy last season was to talk up City’s chances when they were far behind and dampen expectations when they got closer – a strategy designed to motivate his players when they were down and to protect them from pressure when they were doing well. This year it’s been the same, so not much should be read into Mancini’s words when he says that United can be beaten. Of course City can still win the title. But will they? Let’s look at the two teams remaining fixtures and see who can do what.

A word on cup competitions: United are in the Champions League but given Ferguson’s masterful squad rotation skills and United’s squad depth, this should not be a significant issue. United have gone into title battles in February a couple of points ahead of their rivals, gone on to the final of the Champions League and still won the league. Thrice in four years. It’s been done before, it’s not a problem for these players (many of whom were there for those three seasons).

United’s concerns about their pitch are a bigger problem than the fixture congestion.

United’s remaining matches

You can see the list here. The Everton game is the one to worry about – it’s the kind of game United end up dropping points in. After Everton, the only seriously difficult game is at home to City in April. No disrespect to any of the teams but those are games United tend to win. If United are going to have a wobble it’s unlikely to be against a team managed by Harry Redknapp or Sam Allardyce (or Martin O’Neill, for that matter).

A win for United against City should decide the title – anything else and we’ll need to wait till end of the season.

After City though, there’s Arsenal away and Chelsea at home. And if it goes into the last two games of the season with United needing to win both games to win the title, that’ll be surprising for a team that has won three of their last four league titles more comfortably than that – and did I mention this team has won four in six years, with the other two lost by a single point and on goal difference?

United will be expected to drop anywhere between 6-10 points in the last 13 games. They’re due a wobble – it could happen in the big four games or in the other, less prominent games. It could be a European thrashing. It could be a defensive crisis. Expect United to lose points, don’t expect them to implode though.

Because do you really see City getting 13 straight wins? 12 wins and a draw means dropping 2 points. United to lose 11 points in 13 games (after 8 in 6 last season) will take some serious (un)doing.

City still have to play Everton away and Tottenham away. I’m happy to give them a win in both but there’s a good chance that City will drop two points here or there, if not in one of these two games then maybe against United or against another team.

The only way we thought it could happen last season was if United collapsed. They did. Twice in a row may be too much to hope for

It’s not United’s title yet, not by a long shot – and if they pull it off (wobble and all), it will be as much a result of RvP (#20 helping to win the 20th league title) as it would be because of David De Gea’s goalkeeping and crucial saves, Rio Ferdinand’s fantastic defending and Carrick holding the midfield together when there really is every reason to mock United’s soft centre.

See you in May.

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