Manchester United are Premier League title contenders. No, this is not a joke.
Okay, so it still remains a bit of a long shot, given the strong squads at the disposal of Chelsea and Manchester City, but it’s no longer just pie in the sky thinking.
Spirit of Fergie?
Louis van Gaal’s side have strung together five consecutive wins, and they’ve done it without playing that well. If Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, this is where you’d insert something about the mark of champions.
Victories away at Arsenal and Southampton shouldn’t just be disregarded as part of an easy run for the Red Devils either. Both sides will be challenging for top four honours this season, and it’s a mark of the club’s improvement that they’ve been able to dispatch their rivals in such a way. True, it's not the United we're used to seeing, but it's a winning formula.
At the Emirates Stadium, the visitors held Arsene Wenger’s side at bay for over 90 minutes, gradually frustrating the Gunners to the point where they decided to leave nobody to defend. Wayne Rooney did the rest on the counter attack.
It wasn’t quite the same story at St. Mary’s last night, but Manchester United were outplayed for large parts of the contest on the south coast. Ex-defender Gary Neville has since compared them to a pub team.
What Neville should know better than anyone though, is that winning is all that matters. United have managed to do that, and there are signs that they could get even better in the coming months.
Busy festive period
Whilst both Chelsea and Manchester City have had European commitments to deal with ahead of the busy Christmas schedule, manager Van Gaal has had the opposite problem at Old Trafford - getting competitive action for his squad of stars. Burnout should not be an issue in the final month of 2014 and turn of the year.
The return to form of Robin van Persie, one of Premier League’s most proven strikers when fit, is timely, whilst Radamel Falcao has shown in glimpses what he might be capable of. If the Colombian can get fully fit, then the forward line at United is better than any other in the country.
Angel di Maria has also been absent for the two most recent victories, but he’s capable of creating chances for the aforementioned forwards on a regular basis, and last year’s Champions League man of the match has settled into Premier League life with ease. Marouane Fellaini once again looks like a handful for defenders, whilst Michael Carrick is perhaps the most underrated player in the division.
Throw Juan Mata and Ander Herrera into the mix, and you’ve got a pretty decent midfield. On paper, Chelsea and Manchester City have more at their disposal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will win week in, week out. Newcastle proved that point on Saturday.
There is no denying that, if Manchester United are to challenge for the title, they will need to improve defensively. Bad luck with injuries hasn't helped, but in truth it's the one area that is likely to let the club down in the second half of the season.
Marcos Rojo is unproven over a full season at the highest level, whilst Paddy McNair is still a raw talent who was exposed badly against the Saints. Chris Smalling is another injury concern, whilst Phil Jones has also been on the treatment table. Can Jonny Evans be trusted on a regular basis?
Manchester City have Vincent Kompany; Chelsea have John Terry. If Manchester United are to compete with these two until the end of the season, then one January purchase could make all the difference.
Mats Hummels seems the most likely of all the candidates, although Diego Godin and Ezequiel Garay are two names that have also been mentioned. The German international would certainly be the best option.
Given how 'badly' Manchester United played against Southampton, it seems almost preposterous to conclude that they might be able to win it all. Saturday's clash with Liverpool, a pub match in the eyes of some, might give us an even clearer indication of the possibility.
There is no doubt that United will need some lady luck on their side if they are to win the title, and the injury to Sergio Aguero over at the Etihad Stadium certainly won't hurt. The fitness of Diego Costa could also play a part in Chelsea's charge for the title over the next five months.
Van Gaal can only concentrate on himself however, and the former Dutch boss will know that there is still plenty more to come from his side. Sitting third, just eight points behind the leaders, that's a pretty nice thought for both the Manchester United manager and the club's supporters around the world.
It would be typical United if they somehow found themselves in the mix for the title after such a poor start to the season. You wouldn't bet against them.
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