Perhaps the most surprising thing about Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat at Stoke last Saturday was that it wasn’t that surprising.
The Potters had already beaten Chelsea at home this season, as well as drawing with Manchester City and only losing out to Liverpool in a mad eight-goal shootout from which they were unfortunate not to take anything. After those sort of results, why should the seventh best team in the country take anything from the Britannia Stadium?
Of course clubs seventh in the league don’t usually have the quality of a Robin van Persie, a Wayne Rooney or a Juan Mata to call upon, and Manchester United didn’t have that on Saturday either. They had all of them.
But what use are such talents when everything around them is crumbling? United possess several players who aren’t good enough to play for them at the moment, and a manager who increasingly looks as though he’s in over his head too.
There is talk of a fightback, a backlash and a return to normality perhaps sparked by just one result or performance. United should convincingly beat a hapless Fulham – the Premier League’s most welcome visitors – at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, but will that really change anything? The damage may already have been done.
Because, almost unfathomably, it is early February and Manchester United sit seven points off fourth place, a target not so much demanded of Moyes when he took over from Sir Alex Ferguson in the summer, but more expected. Fans aren’t used to looking any lower down the table for this long.
It may already be too late for them.
That seven-point gap to Liverpool – which could have been nine were it not for Kolo Toure’s brain freeze at West Bromwich Albion – might be too much to haul back, with the irony of the identity of that team in fourth place no doubt not lost on all at United.
Because regardless of the Merseyside-Manchester rivalry, Liverpool will loom large in the thoughts of all at Old Trafford right now.
If the Anfield club are to find themselves in the Champions League next season, it will mark five years since their last appearance in the competition. Five years since the failure to qualify for what was once a given led to the departure of a successful manager, several of their best players, complete ownership meltdown and seasons of mediocrity, all of which are regular features in Manchester United nightmares right now.
Based on the assumption that they aren’t going to catch Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea this season, United must now view every Liverpool game with a sense of dread, especially if the Reds’ deadly front two are paired together upfront.
Because as the West Brom game showed, Liverpool’s best chance of finishing in the top four is surely to entrust Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to blast them there.
As Toure demonstrated, pretty much every other department of the Reds team is far from perfect, and so instead of pinning his hopes on them then you can expect Brendan Rodgers to simply hope that Suarez and Sturridge outscore his opponents for the rest of the season. If they can do that, then Liverpool will reach the Champions League. Simple as that.
There’ll be nothing that Manchester United can do about that either, bar when they play Liverpool at Old Trafford on March 16th. Liverpool host Arsenal this weekend and so some ground may well be made up there, but then the Gunners are at home to United next Wednesday when that ground could be lost.
It may still be a huge overstatement, and a club as big as Manchester United will never truly just fade away into darkness, but Suarez and Sturridge have the chance to inflict a serious blow on them over the next three months.
One that Moyes isn’t likely to bounce back from, and one from which the club might need, oh, about five years to recover.
Poyet’s players are Premier League pedigree
Gus Poyet’s turnaround at Sunderland reached its highest point on Saturday with the terrific 3-0 win at Newcastle, a result with much more substance than quick fix Paolo Di Canio’s win by the same scoreline at St James’s Park last season.
Inspired by Adam Johnson’s sudden rediscovery of form, the Mackems rose as high as 12th following the win over their rivals, and now look to have all the tools required to secure Premier League football next season.
With a League Cup final on the horizon too, it is time to praise Poyet for the fine job he’s done on Wearside, which is sure to bring a few admiring glances from other clubs.
Cardiff can be South Wales kings
Saturday night’s South Wales derby won’t be one for the faint-hearted, with Swansea out to avenge the 1-0 loss they suffered to Cardiff in the Welsh capital earlier this season.
The Swans are in freefall though, and Cardiff can prolong that agony with an away win that will be talked about in the principality for years.