Football: Man Utd top again, but big tests loom

Manchester United's Memphis Depay celebrates after scoring their first goal.
PHOTO: Reuters

It was always a matter of time before Manchester United's true incarnation revealed itself.

Ordinarily, surging to the English Premier League's summit would have warranted little, if any, fanfare. Their latest ascent, however, carries a greater significance.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson delivered an unparalleled 20th title, 888 days ago, they have previously held that position three times.

On each occasion, it lasted little more than 24 hours.

This time though, it seems different; the hunted have become the hunters, displacing those that usurped them during the previous two seasons.

Leading from the front, this time on their own terms, Louis van Gaal's side appear to have finally discovered their swagger.

With Manchester City, previously striding unopposed to the crown, faltering, and Chelsea's defence of their crown continuing to nosedive, the Old Trafford faithful have every reason to be bullish that the glory days are set to return, and perhaps even dream of a title in only van Gaal's second season at the helm.

But such is the precarious nature of life at the business end of the Premiership that United are still susceptible to the fates which have recently befallen their petrodollar peers.

CHALLENGES

City, wonderfully christened the "noisy neighbours" by the irascible Ferguson, sit just one point adrift, ahead of next month's Manchester Derby.

The challenges preceding that Oct 25 showdown will determine whether the Red Devils' consolidation plans carry genuine conviction.

Wayne Rooney's rediscovered Midas touch in the slick 3-0 win over Sunderland last Saturday was perfectly timed ahead of what is arguably van Gaal's most testing period of the new campaign.

He scored to end a goal drought in the Premier League of nearly 1,000 minutes, but what was even more important was his general play, picking out passes, trying to free his fellow attackers and showing signs of a growing understanding with a young, muscular and effervescent Anthony Martial.

The litany of records at the England captain's mercy have appeared to be a millstone around his neck since previously finding the net, in April.

He stands just 19 goals short of becoming United's all-time scorer; a figure which, if breached this season, could well fire them to a 21st title.

Van Gaal justifiably is under no illusions of the difficulties staying the distance in arguably the world's most competitive league.

United's dominance has been made all the more difficult since Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich emerged as powerful forces in English football.

But Mansour's City are limping at the moment and Abramovich's Chelsea are a pale shadow of last season's title winners.

United have strength in depth and they are growing in confidence.

Seeing off Wolfsburg on Thursday morning (Singapore time) will ensure that they revive their bid to progress into the Round of 16 in the Champions League, and avoiding a continental hangover in Sunday's tasty visit to the Emirates Stadium will be the first litmus test of their title credentials on the home front.

Arsenal suddenly look like contenders, again, in what is looking like a see-saw battle for domestic supremacy.

It has, as van Gaal put it, become a rat race.

Quite clearly, United have proven to be quicker out of the traps than their rivals, including Wenger's inconsistent side.

Of course, that will count for little should van Gaal's men come unstuck when one of English football's fiercest feuds resumes.

Equally difficult challenges lie beyond the international break.

Visits to Everton have become an unpleasant footnote in United's seasons, with their three previous visits to Goodison Park all ending in defeat.

A fourth would defy van Gaal's claim that his side are capable of overcoming any of their contemporaries and threaten to render United's apparent revival stuck in transition for another 12 months at least.

Right now, they are top-four certainties. Over the next month, we will know exactly what United are capable of.


This article was first published on September 28, 2015.
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