Cast your mind back to the very first days of March. Spring was in the air, days were becoming longer and the prospect of a long hazy summer was becoming a reality.
But while March offered pleasant and increasing temparatures it was also the month that Manchester United well and truly turned up the heat on Manchester City in the Premier League title race.
United began March five points behind City (albeit with a game in hand). Fast forward little more than 31 days later and the reigning champions now occupy top spot with a five point cushion of their own thanks to Tuesday’s nervy win over Blackburn.
So how did they do it? GMF is here to look back on the month that looks like being the decisive period in what is shaping up to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s finest domestic triumph.
First things first – win the game in hand
With the pressure on United after Mario Balotelli’s brace had helped Manchester City to a 2-0 win over Bolton, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had the tough task of travelling to White Hart Lane and taking on a Tottenham side desperately looking to bounce back from their crushing 5-2 defeat in the north London derby the week before.
While Tottenham hadn’t beaten United in the league since 2001 and were without leading lights Gareth Bale, Scott Parker and Rafael van der Vaart, Harry Redknapp’s men gave United a torrid time and should have taken an early lead only to have Emmanuel Adebayor’s close range effort chalked off, somewhat harshly for hand-ball.
For all the home-side’s pressure and efforts it was United that surprisingly took a first half lead through Wayne Rooney and the reigning champions didn’t look back afterwards, racing into a 3-0 lead before Jermain Defoe scored a consolation goal late on.
Before the game Ferguson described the trip to White Hart Lane as the ‘most difficult’ of the season. Afterwards he could barely believe his luck to have walked away with three points. The gap was back down to two points.
Sir Alex Ferguson: "A battling performance today tells you that we are up for it. It’s an entirely unbelievable result. I would say that’s our hardest away game of the season. They’d only lost one game [at home]. That was the magnitude of our challenge today. And, in fairness, the first half we were never at the races."
Points: 1st: Manchester City, 66 points; 2nd: Manchester United 64
Bounce back from Europa League defeat
With both title challengers fresh from the disappointment of their respective Europa League defeats, the focus switched to the Premier League once more on March 11.
However it was only United who had the experience to shake off their galling defeat to Athletic Bilbao in mid-week as they recorded a routine 2-0 victory over West Brom at Old Trafford thanks to a second Wayne Rooney brace in the space of a week.
For the first time in five months, Manchester City were off the top of the table as the went down in dramatic fashion to Swansea.
Crucially without captain and defensive rock Vincent Kompany, who had picked up a knock in the Europa League defeat against Sporting Lisbon
Scott Sinclair’s penalty effort was saved early on for the home side before Luke Moore headed a late winner for the Swans.
As if City’s luck couldn’t get much worse, they even had a late Micah Richards goal ruled out for offside as City’s away form developed finally developed into a real issue – after the game at the Liberty Stadium they had won only two of their last eight Premier League away games.
Roberto Mancini: "Today was not critical. I think this championship will be decided with three games to go."
Points: 1st Manchester United, 67 points; 2nd Manchester City, 66 points
Pile pressure on City
United were handed the opportunity to reverse the roles and play before City with their Sunday 18 fixture against Wolves at Molineux while their rivals would play three days later in a crucial showdown with Chelsea.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were at their clinical best as Antonio Valenica, along with Wayne Rooney the driving force behind United’s ruthless run of form, ran riot against Terry Connor’s relegation-threatened side.
The former Wigan winger set up two and bagged a goal for himself as United ran riot, winning 5-0 and crucially reducing City’s superior goal difference advantage to just three – a factor most believes could be vital come May.
Manchester City meanwhile picked up a desperately needed home win – making it 20 wins in a row at the Etihad to set a new Premier League record – as they fought back from 1-0 down to claim a 2-1 win thanks to goals from Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri. Carlos Tevez returned from five months in exile to play a key role in the winning goal – it seemed as though City were fighting back and resisting the United charge.
Roberto Mancini: "We deserved to win, we wanted the win. The guys were fantastic because they wanted to win until the last second….tonight we took more than three points."
Points: 1st Manchester United, 70 points; 2nd Manchester City, 69 points
City drawing a blank
A tale of two tight games that ended up in very different results , City were charged with travelling to Stoke on Saturday March 24 while United would go up against Fulham at Old Trafford two days later.
Pressure was building for both sides following a week of arguments played out in front of the media, with Patrick Vieira’s disparaging remarks about Paul Scholes’ return to action and Sir Alex Ferguson biting back, pointing to the return of Carlos Tevez as an example of people in glass houses throwing stones.
On the pitch it was City faltering away from home once more as Peter Crouch’s wonder goal gave Stoke the lead in an otherwise drab encounter.
City salvaged a draw with Yaya Toure’s deflected effort, but while the point put them briefly back on top thanks to their superior goal difference, United now held the advantage with their game against Fulham to come.
A nervy encounter at Old Trafford was ultimately settled by a first half Wayne Rooney goal, his 21st league goal of the season, however the game wasn’t without incident as United held off Fulham’s charge while Michael Carrick’s clumsy late challenge on Danny Murphy should have led to a last-gasp penalty for the visitors. Referee Michael Oliver said no and a classic United title performance that resulted in three points was in the bag.
Sir Alex Ferguson: "They had a claim [for a penalty]. Carrick caught Murphy's heel. They had more left than we did in the last 15 minutes.”
Points: 1st Manchester United, 73 points; 2nd Manchester City, 70 points
As March turned to April, the latest weekend of Premier League action proved to be one of the most dramatic as Manchester City conceded serious ground in the title race.
Their 3-3 draw with Sunderland on Saturday saw Roberto Mancini reach breaking point as he fumed at his side’s insipid performance that saw them go 3-1 down and put their unbeaten home record that stretches back to December 2010 at risk.
Earlier in the week Mancini was irate as he revealed Sergio Aguero would be out for up to two weeks because a mysterious ‘stupid’ injury that was later revealed to be blisters that arose thanks to a reaction to a medical spray.
Mario Balotelli also incurred his manager’s wrath for a poor performance that still yielded two goals as well as two arguments with team-mates during the game.
As City seemingly capitulated, United were sweating on opening up an advantage at the top of the table as they struggled against Blackburn before Antonio Valencia offered salvation through his 81st minute goal before Ashley Young sealed the deal with five minutes to go. The title it now seems, is United’s to lose.
Points: 1st Manchester United, 76 points; 2nd Manchester City, 71 points
Roberto Mancini: "If we go eight points behind (when United play QPR) then it is finished. It's clear we are disappointed. We have made some mistakes, me and the team.”
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