United ensure pursuit drags on

Even the perpetually cautious Roberto Mancini surely can’t now put up a convincing argument to suggest that Manchester United remain favourites for the title.

For weeks, the Manchester City manager has attracted increasing levels of ridicule for the way he has down-played his side’s hopes of looking down on the rest of English football at the end of the season for the first time in more than four decades.

However, despite decades of false hope and shattered dreams, even the most hard-bitten City follower, or conversely, even the most optimistic, rose-tinted spectacle-wearing United supporter, would have to expect a Blue Moon to rise on Sunday.

At least United avoided the ignominy of not being able to take their seemingly fruitless pursuit to the final day, although having frittered away an eight-point advantage in a little over a month, that will be scant consolation. The last time United were pipped to the title by City, they at least had the consolation of winning the European Cup shortly afterwards. Some 44 years on, there will be no way of sugaring such a bitter pill if what seems to be the inevitable comes to pass on May 13.

United need to better City’s result in the final round of matches to prevent their Domesday scenario. If both sides win on Sunday, as they should do with the leaders hosting notoriously bad travellers QPR, and United heading to their happy Wearside hunting ground at the Stadium of Light, only an improbable eight-goal swing in favour of the reigning champions will see them retain their title. They’ve done the maths — and it doesn’t look good.

First-half goals from Paul Scholes and Ashley Young saw Alex Ferguson’s side draw level on points with City at the top in a non-event of a contest played out before a predictably subdued atmosphere at Old Trafford, the hosts kicking-off in the knowledge that a double from Yaya Toure to seal a 2-0 victory at Newcastle had cemented City’s grip on top spot. It even opened up the nightmarish scenario that the unlikely spectre of a defeat at the hands of the Welshmen would, in effect, end the title chase a week early.

However, they made short work of a Swansea side who were again pleasing on the eye but who, as so often in their debut Premier League season, carried insufficient threat in the final third, until a flurry of late chances. Michel Vorm was by far the busier of the keepers, and the Dutchman was forced into a fine double save to deny Patrice Evra from 20 yards, and the close-range follow-up from Wayne Rooney as the visitors failed to deal with a corner as United set about trying to bridge the titanic gulf in goal difference, eventually having to settle for just the two goals as they ran out of ideas the longer the match went on.

Michael Carrick was at the heart of things as the hosts finally broke the deadlock in the 28th-minute. Antonio Valencia beat Neil Taylor to make strides down and right to pull back for the lurking Carrick, who quickly redirected the ball into the six-yard box. Swansea had plenty of bodies back to cover, but that failed to prevent Scholes from reacting first to open the scoring with a close-range flick. The lack of celebration from the veteran midfielder to meet his fourth goal of the season betrayed the true feeling in the United camp, one of their task being a futile one.

Javier Hernandez should have swiftly doubled the advantage, the unmarked Mexico forward directing a header over from five yards after Scholes flicked on a Young centre.

The second duly arrived four minutes before the break. Swansea were made to pay for being caught in possession as they attempted to pass out of their own area, Scholes winning the ball to square for Rooney in the area. The England forward’s snap-shot was blocked, but fell invitingly for Young to curl home his eighth goal of the season into the bottom corner from 15 yards.

Only an athletic intervention from Nathan Dyer denied Young a tap-in for the third after the interval, while Hernandez was again wasteful with a header. Rooney spurned a clear opening to claim a career-best 27th Premier League goal of the season after being released by Carrick as Swansea were again carved open in ruthless fashion.

Having already secured another season in the top flight, Swansea rarely looked like improving on a dire record at Old Trafford that now sees them without a victory there in nine visits. Dyer curled an early long-range effort narrowly over, and David De Gea made a meal of a low 25-yard shot from Gylfi Sigurdsson, before the Spaniard made amends with a fine reaction save to deny Danny Graham from close range as Swansea belatedly came into it.

When De Gea clawed out Sigurdsson’s long-range free-kick shortly after Dyer blazed high and wide from a promising position, the last chance of mounting an improbable comeback had gone, leaving Swansea in 12th place, with only one victory in their last eight matches.

And so to the final game. Of course, this having been a Premier League season of some quite astonishing twists and turns, don’t rule out one or two more vicissitudes in the final 90 minutes. As any self-respecting City fan will tell you, there’s still ample opportunity for them to somehow throw this away. Surely not even City could contrive to blow it from here? Don’t be too sure.


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