Character may earn City first title in 44 years

When the dust settles on another Premier League season at around 5.10pm this evening, it will ultimately be decided by one factor – character.

Of course, a win for the nouveau riche City would not be the fairytale win its long-suffering fans would like to think of it as, but any protestations about finances from what is still the richest club in the world on the red side of Manchester would ring somewhat hollow.

Many have, with some justification, labelled Man City as a team of mercenaries, lacking the character to maintain a realistic title challenge. Yet all along, in between the marquee signings, City have quietly assembled a strong spine, filled with the kind of players capable of inspiring their team when they don’t happen to be winning 3-0.

Joe Hart has continued his impressive development into a confident, assuring figure between the sticks.

Vincent Kompany, surely one of the league’s players of the season, has been a rock in central defence. His value to the Blues can be easily seen by the standard of their results in his absence.

Joleon Lescott has overcome a difficult season to emerge as a dependable deputy.

In midfield, Yaya Toure has become as close to the traditional box-to-box midfielder as is seen in the game these days, equally comfortable spoiling opposition attacks as he is striding forward with intent. Gareth Barry has been ever-present this season, getting on with his job with quiet efficiency.

It is these, (somewhat) less expensive, unglamorous players that City fans can thank for their almost inevitable title win today. They have allowed the more apparent talents of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri to shine.

In contrast, it is that abundance of character and leadership that United has lacked at crucial points this season, albeit often through injury. It has certainly not come in the form of their goalkeeper David De Gea, who despite shaking off his more calamitous errors, has yet to inspire the level of confidence in both fans and defenders that his predecessors have.

The long-time centre-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic could always be relied upon to rally the troops, but injury has denied them the chance to make much impact this season.

Vidic in particular, having played a mere five league games, has been a huge miss. Jonny Evans has plugged the defensive hole admirably, but the 24-year-old has yet to emerge as a senior player.

Looking around the rest of the United squad, and it seems more like the City squad of old. Plenty of youth, flair and guile (Nani, Young, Valencia, Rooney, Cleverly, Wellbeck, Hernandez) but lacking in leaders. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes remain (very) senior players, but lack the mobility to play every game, and the loss of the combative Darren Fletcher hasn’t helped either.

United will look back at two games in particular where they lost their grip on the title this season - a 4-4 capitulation to Everton at home, and their 1-0 defeat to City at The Emirates. Both desperately needed a Roy Keane or a Bryan Robson of old to inspire them to a result, but none were forthcoming.

Of course, this is all presuming that City go on to win the title today, but it would take a brave individual to bet against them. With both teams level on 86 points, City enjoy an unassailable eight-goal advantage in goal difference.

They take on a QPR side fighting for their Premier League survival. QPR will know that for Bolton to overtake them however, they will need to come away from Stoke needing a win, a notoriously difficult task for even the elite teams.

Though formidable, Stoke’s home record is dwarfed by City’s - only one team has come away from the Emirates with a point this season. QPR, for their part, have the worst away record in the league.

The chances of QPR upsetting City today is perhaps best summed up by Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson himself: “We need something stupid to happen at City, we know that."

Man City manager Roberto Mancini has continued the downbeat mantra that has proven so successful in the final few games of the season, offering the hilarious: “It will be hard, it will be difficult - more than at Newcastle, more than against Manchester United."

United are at Sunderland knowing that a win will at least offer the possibility of an unlikely title, but this is hardly a foregone conclusion.

Though they have lost their winning edge of late, Sunderland are hardly likely to roll over in front of their home crowd for the last game of the season.

So, in a way, City will achieve their title aspirations by adopting United’s long-time strategy of assembling flamboyant, attacking players around a strong core of tough, hard-working leaders.

That will be of little comfort to their fans as they face their grinning blue-clad mates in the pubs of Manchester tonight.

Score predictions: Manchester City 3 QPR 0, Sunderland 1 Manchester United 3.

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