United cap season of unexpected

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United_celebrations3 AP Manchester United haven't been able to keep it together this season.

London – As Manchester City's players trudged off the pitch on April 8 following a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, only the most wildly optimistic of their supporters would have believed that barely a month later they would be on the brink of a historic league title triumph.

An abject display against the Gunners, culminating in the sending-off of wayward striker Mario Balotelli, left rivals Manchester United a massive eight points clear with only six games remaining.

“No fight, no spirit, no title for feeble City,” the Daily Mirror commented, reflecting the widely held view that United's 20th league title was in the bag as City's challenge unravelled in disarray.

After all, so the conventional wisdom went, United were the masters of timing title charges to perfection, blessed with the near-mythical quality of knowing what it takes to get over the finish line. Nothing would stop them now.

But fast forward a month, and United's reputation for being able to ruthlessly press home their advantage when it matters has been rendered obsolete after the biggest late-season collapse in Premier League history.

A catastrophic sequence of results, which saw United claim only one win in their next four matches, allowed City to edge clear of them on goal difference after their momentous 1-0 win over their neighbours on April 30.

No team has ever lost the title after leading by eight points in April, and Ferguson must now come to terms with the fact that his side have done a “Devon Loch”, the horse which mysteriously collapsed 40 yards from the finish line when leading the 1956 Grand National by five lengths.

Ferguson is in no doubt about the result which proved pivotal in his team's demise, namely the 4-4 draw with Everton on April 22 which allowed City to move within three points of United.

Had United been able to claim all three points after leading 3-1 and 4-2 at Old Trafford during the second half, they would be still be two points clear heading into Sunday's final round of fixtures.

“I think the Everton game was the killer for us,” Ferguson reflected last week. “It was an absolutely ridiculous performance in the last 10 minutes of the match. Just absolute carelessness,” said Ferguson.

“It's alright saying the history of the club is to attack all the time but it was a stupid performance and it's put us on the back-foot, no question about that. If we lose the league we'll have to accept it's the Everton game that did it. No doubt about that.”

The gung-ho naivety which Ferguson blamed for the Everton draw was also partly responsible for the other result this season which ultimately may prove equally costly, namely United's 6-1 home drubbing by City in October.

If City do become the first team in the Premier League era to clinch the title on goal difference this weekend, Ferguson's words following that traumatic defeat at Old Trafford will haunt his players.

“It's all right playing the history books but common sense has to come into it,” Ferguson said at the time.

“When we went to 3-1, 4-1 we should have settled for that. We kept attacking and we should have just said: 'We've had our day.'

“But our two full-backs were playing like wingers. At times it was two versus three at the back. And that was suicidal, crazy.”

It has left Ferguson hoping that a 2011/2012 season of the unexpected has one final twist in store on Sunday as his team travel to Sunderland.

But United's performance at the Stadium of Light will be irrelevant if Manchester City beat relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers at Eastlands.

Regardless of the result, few will argue that the current campaign has been among the most compelling in English football history, which is set for the closest finish since Arsenal pipped Liverpool to the old First Division title in 1989 with their last-gasp 2-0 victory at Anfield.

This season is also on course to be the most prolific. With 10 matches left 1,034 goals have been scored – 30 more on Sunday would break the existing record of 1,063 set in the 2010/2011 campaign.

FIXTURES

Sunday (4pm): Chelsea v Blackburn. Everton v Newcastle. Man City v QPR. Norwich v Aston Villa. Stoke v Bolton. Sunderland v Man Utd. Swansea v Liverpool. Tottenham v Fulham. West Brom v Arsenal. Wigan v Wolves. – Sapa-AFP