Ditch title hopes, United

Ditch title hopes, United
Arsenal's Calum Chambers (L) trips over Manchester United's Ashley Young during their English Premier League soccer match at the Emirates Stadium in London November 22, 2014.

Nothing too specific, just a generic comment about taking the season one game at a time and not looking past Hull City tonight.

That's all Ashley Young had to say.

But, as he so often does on the field, the Manchester United winger got ahead of himself. Yesterday, his unfortunate remarks ignored sobering reality in favour of blind faith.

"The manager has said we want to break that top four," Young said, standing on solid ground.

"But you know players and staff at the club, we want to win the league title," he added, before the ground gave way and swallowed him whole.

Unless he's hankering for a second career in stand-up comedy, Young is guilty of misplaced optimism. Or he's a tad delusional.

United aren't winning the title this season. They're not even getting close.

If the Premier League table never lies, then it's proving to be a master of deception right now. The Red Devils are fourth by default. They are the fourth least inconsistent side in an ongoing elitist battle of inconsistency.

With the exception of Chelsea, this season represents a transitional one for most of the leading contenders, the kind of season that is occasionally essential, but quickly forgotten.

The Premier League's cyclical process makes for entertaining peaks and troughs. Unfortunately, Chelsea's paper challengers are sniffing around the trough, waiting for either a transfer window buffet or for Jose Mourinho to clear off so they can gorge on their own success again.

United are fourth because they are the least bad of their other rivals, an unpalatable fact clearly underlined when their most patched-up first 11 in recent memory defeated the most gutless Arsenal first 11 in recent memory.

Porous defences do not prevail. Despite their improvements, Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling and Patrick McNair are not the stuff that open-top bus parade dreams are made of.

Luke Shaw's ankle injury ensures Louis van Gaal is deprived of another player integral to his tactical plans. His loss - along with Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva - has butchered the back line.

If dodgy defences do not win trophies, decimated defences are lucky to qualify for the top four. As Liverpool and Arsenal amply demonstrate, it's hard to take a club's title credentials seriously when there are cardboard cutouts playing in front of the goalkeeper.

POOR START

United have lost only one of their last seven games, but statistics can be shaped to fit any reasonable hypothesis. This season also represents the club's poorest start since 1986 and the victory at Arsenal was the first away from home.

Van Gaal's men have conceded as many goals as Stoke and, more interestingly, the most expensive attacking line-up in the club's history have scored a goal less than West Ham.

Of course, the Hammers are not governed from the sidelines by one of the most decorated managers in the modern game.

Young mentioned van Gaal's aura, and then his presence, and then his belief, all in the same comment. It's a wonder he didn't wear a sign, saying: "Please pick me against Hull, boss."

The 29-year-old is not necessarily wrong. Van Gaal's personal magnetism makes him a formidable presence. His dictatorial stance at the Emirates Stadium contrasted noticeably with Arsene Wenger's.

Compared to van Gaal, the Arsenal manager displayed all the aggressive intent of a teddy bear's picnic.

The Dutchman's tenacity is a wonderful asset, but he doesn't boast enough on the pitch. Mourinho already has the monopoly on game-changing assets.

After just 12 games, United are 13 points behind Chelsea and the Blues' biggest obstacles have already been successfully navigated. They went to Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton and returned undefeated.

Young mentions a tilt at the title and hears stifled giggles. Bookmakers slash the odds on Chelsea finishing the season unbeaten and no one laughs.

A record points tally and a record margin of victory are already potential targets for the Blues. Everyone else is playing for second place. This title race can no longer be won, but only thrown away by those remorseless, relentless winning machines. And Mourinho's sides just do not implode.

At every club, from Porto to Real Madrid, the Portuguese perfectionist finished his second season at the summit. Mourinho is a creature of habit. He will win again.

United may make a pretty bridesmaid in the spring, but this wedding march is only playing the Blues.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 29, 2014.
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